LOS ANGELES - Before and after they won 10 of 12 games in non-conference play, the Washington State Cougars said they were capable of bringing a men's basketball title to Pullman for the first time since 1941.
First, however, the Cougars must make certain they avoid a repeat of their last-place finish from a year ago.
The Cougars fell to 0-2 in Pacific-10 Conference play Saturday when their late rally fell short in a 60-56 defeat at USC. The customary small (3,581), quiet USC basketball crowd watched the matinee at glistening Galen Center.
The Cougars raced to the airport following the game after splitting six games on a two-week trip that carried them from Pullman to Santa Clara, Calif., to Honolulu to Los Angeles. WSU won the first three games, then lost three in a row to fall to 10-4.
“It has to wear down people, mentally and physically,” WSU post DeAngelo Casto said.
“We’ve been on the road a long time,” coach Ken Bone said. “As a staff, we’re really proud of the guys; their effort, their perseverance.”
Casto led the Cougars with a season-high 18 points – “He was a beast,” teammate Marcus Capers said – but Casto’s 8-for-11 shooting was the exception for the Cougs.
WSU had season lows for points and field-goal-shooting percentage (36.7). The Cougars started the day on top of the Pac-10 and 16th in NCAA Division I with 49.1 percent shooting.
The Cougars gave the Trojans their due – “They’re an outstanding defensive team,” Bone said – but WSU simply missed a lot of shots.
Pac-10 scoring leader Klay Thompson (10th in Division I with 22.6 points per game coming in) was held to 17 points on 6-for-18 shooting, partly due to tenacious defense by Marcus Simmons.
Faisal Aden and Reggie Moore both finished 2-for-11 from the floor.
WSU was credited with just five assists on 22 baskets, but Casto said, “I thought we got great shots.”
Washington State held brief leads early, then trailed the rest of the way.
A four-point halftime deficit expanded to 13 with 31/2 minutes remaining before Abe Lodwick’s 3-pointer capped an 11-0 run that narrowed the USC lead to 58-56 with 1:20 to go.
A deflected pass bounced out of bounds off Lodwick’s hands in the right corner with 11.7 seconds remaining. USC’s Dante Smith followed with two free throws.
Smith, a reserve guard who nailed all three of his 3-point attempts in the second half, tied post Alex Stepheson for the team lead with 14 points.
“Dante has become a clutch player for us,” USC coach Kevin O’Neill said.
Nikola Vucevic added 12 points and 11 rebounds for the Trojans, who shot 41.2 percent.
Stepheson had 10 boards, matching Thompson, who tied his career high. Thompson’s only other college double-double came as a freshman. Now a junior, Thompson moved past Chris Crosby into 10th place in WSU career scoring with 1,334 points.
Oregon State (6-6, 1-0) visits WSU at 7 p.m. Thursday.