As I sat in the rafters of Hec Edmondson and the seconds ticked away to ensure that WSU would likely need to win the Pac-10 Tournament to earn a third consecutive NCAA Tournament berth, one thought kept crossing my mind.
I cannot believe how far this team has come.
The same team that had been unable to keep up with Pitt, Baylor and LSU and mauled at home alternately by Gonzaga and UW -- the same team that had flirted with irrelevance all season long -- had won three consecutive games against likely Tournament teams and just stood toe-to-toe with the best team in the conference in the most hostile of environments. Faced with a fading season, this team had risen to the challenge in every conceivable way.
It was notable because at times this season we wondered if this team really did have the fight necessary to make a push.
Which is what makes last night all that much more puzzling.
With the season on the line, with a chance to truly get where it wanted to be -- and with the notable exception of one Aron Baynes -- this team simply didn't work hard enough on the floor. There was effort in the opening minutes to be sure, but when the 2-footers weren't falling and UCLA was hitting its stride, the team that stood up three weeks ago and refused to be bullied any longer was nowhere to be found.
Tony Bennett said it best.
"I thought we got out-toughed today, I’ll be honest with you," he said in the Staples Center hallway after UCLA’s 64-53 defeat of Washington State. "In a game we needed to play, how we needed to play didn’t show itself until the end."
Against Washington, I saw Taylor Rochestie and Klay Thompson working like animals on the offensive end to get open for looks, running hard through tough screens in search of any crack that would allow them to get their shot off. I saw physical, hustling defense both on the perimeter and interior, as every Husky player had to work his butt off just to catch the ball.
I saw a team that wanted it as bad as Washington did, but in the end just didn't have the talent to match desire.
Last night, there was precious too little of that. Whether because of tired legs or something else, I didn't see reckless determination on the offensive end -- just a lot of recklessness. I didn't see toughness on defense -- just a lot of too slow feet, both in getting back in transition and in keeping up in the halfcourt.
Case in point: Darren Collison came into the game nursing a bruised tailbone -- he didn't even fully participate in practice on Wednesday. How did we respond? By not even sending him to the floor one time. When faced with stopping Collison one-on-one on a fastbreak, an overmatched Daven Harmeling waved at him, allowed him to easily convert the bucket and committed a foul in the process. I'm not saying we should have been dirty; but I am saying that we should have taken every opportunity to be physical with him, and if he happened to land on his sore posterior in the process, all the better.
Perhaps I shouldn't have been so surprised by last night. After all, the fight we showed over the final four games of the regular season was the anomaly this year, not the norm. We can point to far more examples of this team wilting in the face of adversity than we can examples of it standing up and pushing back. In the end, perhaps this was a fitting end to this regular season -- a performance that was perfectly emblematic of all of our travails.
After taking so many steps forward, the Cougs took a step backward, once again inexplicably failing to pull their crap together when it mattered most.
We knew the NCAA Tournament was a longshot when this whole run started. Let's just hope it's enough to get into the NIT so these guys get one more chance to prove this team really is worthy of all the praise heaped upon it over the past three weeks.