As the game wound down to its final moments in regulation with the Cougs trailing by two, I just kept thinking about how small the margin is in college basketball. With only ~30 games, there are so precious few opportunities to make statements, and the result of each game is magnified beyond what it probably should be.
If the Cougs lose last night -- which they were on the verge of doing without yet another in a string of spectacular plays by Reggie Moore -- we're talking about a team that can't seem to figure out a way to beat anyone good. It's a team that still has a considerable amount of growing up to do with more than a third of the season gone, and trepidation sets in until conference play starts a week from tomorrow.
But this is what it is, and instead of moping we get to entertain thoughts of grandeur after the Cougs came back for a rousing, 72-70 overtime win over LSU. Instead, we get to talk about how tough they were, how much they've matured, how their potential in Pac-10 play is so great ... all because Bo Spencer's final 3-point heave fell short of the rim.
Is it ideal? No way. But for as much as we like to take a big picture approach to where the team is heading and try to avoid results-based analysis, the reality is that with only 30 games, results matter. A lot. And last night was a huge one. When March rolls around, if this team is in any kind of postseason conversation, this will be a game people point to in favor of WSU.
LSU is only ranked No. 139 by kenpom.com. That's going to change -- dramatically -- when all is said and done. That's a good team that, like the Cougs, is quickly getting better. They've got an absolute beast in Tasmin Mitchell (more on him in a second) and Bo Spencer is really good. They crash the offensive glass with relentless abandon and are disciplined. After the game, Trent Johnson and Ken Bone spent a lot of time shining sunshine you know where, but this time it felt legitimate -- that's a well-coached squad the Cougars just beat.
The Tigers certainly aren't a great offensive team, but the defensive job the Cougars did on them last night was simply phenomenal, especially considering where this team was just a few weeks ago. Early on, it appeared as if Mitchell was going to dominate this game. He was flat-out abusing Abe Lodwick in the post, getting to the rim, drawing fouls, picking up offensive rebounds. Bone reached for Nikola Koprivica early -- before the 16 minute mark -- and from there, everything changed.
The Cougs threw the book at LSU in order to neutralize Mitchell. They played standard man-to-man. They played 2-3 zone. Bone said they even played some triangle-and-two. And it worked: The result was a 95.7 efficiency for the Tigers on 40.0 effective field goal percentage as Mitchell struggled to find a groove. The former was the fourth-lowest of the year allowed by WSU; the latter, the lowest. Without a doubt, this was the best all-around defensive effort of the year for these young Cougs, as the Tigers rarely got an open look. Even the 3s LSU did hit were contested, as breakdowns were minimal.
Johnson lamented after the game that Mitchell didn't get any free throws in such a physical game. While I agree that it was a little odd, I also think it reflected both Mitchell's lack of aggression to the rim and the amazing job both Koprivica and the rest of the Cougar defense did in throwing different looks at him. At times, he looked like he was thinking rather than playing, and at other times he looked like he just didn't want to work hard anymore for a quality shot -- as exemplified by that weak fade-away jumper in overtime.
If you wanted defense, people ... you got it. And that's as exciting as anything else that happened last night as we evaluate this team going forward.
The offense? Well, let's just say it wasn't the prettiest thing in the world, as Bone said after the game that LSU did a great job of making the Cougs look ugly at times. The Tigers played tough, physical defense on them, and they deserve a lot of credit for it. But what's most important is that it was good enough.
Good enough for a huge win to savor for the next week.
Player(s) of the game
Can't go with just one guy here ...
Klay Thompson. With 15:15 left in the game, the Cougs led 44-36. Just over three minutes later, that lead was whittled to two. Klay had eight points, and had been a virtual non-factor -- something I wasn't all that concerned about up until that point, because he had, for the most part, made good decisions that allowed his teammates to score. Jo-Jo texted me and said this was the point at which Klay had to take over. I had a similar sentiment as the Gonzaga game was slipping away; we all know how that one turned out.
Not last night. As if on cue, Thompson hit a 3, had a steal, hit a runner in the lane, got to the rim for a layup, hit a pair of free throws and then found DeAngelo Casto on a pick and roll for an easy bucket. In a span of 4:09 -- at a critical juncture in the game -- Klay had nine points, a steal and an assist. He also would hit another jumper to break a tie at the 6:05 mark and another 3 to regain the lead with 3:50 to go. Quite simply, without Klay's offensive outburst in the second half, we don't win this game.
Reggie Moore. Jo-Jo -- who has been away serving Uncle Sam for the past few months and has only seen the last two games -- also asked me if Moore has the best freshman in the Pac-10. I think that question has been unquestionably answered. Moore played all 45 minutes last night and committed just two turnovers. He did only have four assists (after piling up 22 the last two games), but it was the last one that made all the difference.
With the Cougs down by two with under 20 seconds to go in regulation -- and coming off a forced-and-missed 3-point attempt by Klay on the previous possession -- Moore did exactly what I absolutely was hoping he would do. Knowing that the Tigers would be looking straight to Klay, Moore drove the lane, drawing approximately three defenders right to him. Moore left his feet, but he somehow found DeAngelo Casto under the hoop for the game-tying basket with six seconds to go. Spectacular.
As someone said on the postgame thread, this team now has two clear weapons for teams to contend with down the stretch of games. I can't even begin to describe to you how enormous that is.
Nik Koprivica. This one was so easy. I asked Bone after the game if it was possible to overstate the impact Koprivica had on this game with his defense on Mitchell. The answer was a flat, "No." For as important as Klay's scoring outburst was, Nik's job on Mitchell was equally important. He was an absolute warrior in the post against a guy who is taller, stronger and more athletic than him, yet somehow he was able to more or less keep the ball out of Mitchell's hands. When Mitchell did get the ball, Nik played sound defense, cutting off the baseline and forcing Mitchell back to the WSU help. He also did as good a job as could be expected boxing out a guy who will be first-team all-SEC come March.
That Nik chipped in 11 points, six rebounds and two assists -- against just one turnover, his first in the past four games -- was just icing on the cake. The redemption story continues.
It was over when ...
Spencer's desperation 3 with a few seconds left fell short of the rim and the Cougs were able to keep the ball out of the hands of LSU in the ensuing scrum -- not a moment before that.
Stat of the game
Prior to last night, the Cougs' two lowest offensive efficiencies came against Kansas State (91.5) and Gonzaga (95.7). Against the Tigers, WSU posted an offensive efficiency of 98.1. And won.