Klay Thompson said on Sunday that the Washington State Cougars were headed to the Hawaiian Islands to make a name for themselves. Two games in, both he and the Cougs have done just that by advancing to the finals of the Diamond Head Classic after beating No. 15 Baylor, 77-71.
This game was as impressive a performance as you're going to see from any team, anywhere. WSU put on a zone-breaking clinic for the first 28 minutes of the game, penetrating just enough to move the zone then passing to the gap. The Cougs used that and some stellar defense to build an 18-point lead midway through the second half, despite all of WSU main players seeing extended minutes on the bench because of foul trouble.
But Baylor is a good team by whichever measure you prefer -- No. 15 according to humans, No. 8 according to Ken Pomeroy's adjusted efficiency margin -- and they certainly weren't going to go away quietly. The Bears came storming back behind leading scorer LaceDarius Dunn, who was a total non-factor in the first half. He hit a couple of 3s, hit a couple of contested 2-point jumpers, and -- most importantly -- was getting to the line.
However, nobody erases an 18-point lead on offense alone, and it was a jarring defensive change that stalled out the Cougs: Baylor switched out of their vaunted zone, which the Cougs dissected, and went straight man-to-man. With Thompson on the bench with four fouls, WSU went a little stale, made a few bad decisions, and POOF! What was a 59-41 lead for WSU with 12:33 to go became a 64-61 lead for Baylor with 6:37 to play.
This story was unfamiliar to us all; we saw this exact scenario last year against Gonzaga, and it did not end well. But these Cougs are proving maturity is not a mythical factor. For the third straight game, WSU faced adversity that was not entirely their doing which threatened the outcome of the game, and for the third straight game this team came through with flying colors.
First Reggie Moore made a layup to close the gap to one. Then Baylor, as it hadn't done at all during its run, turned the ball over on a couple of straight possessions before Thompson hit a 3-pointer to regain the lead, 66-64 with 4:33 to go. From there, the Cougs went into lockdown mode, as Baylor would not score again for the next three minutes. But WSU could only manage a jumper from Moore, so when Dunn hit another 3 with 1:44 to go, the Bears pulled back within one.
But Klay Thompson being who he is this year put one more dagger home -- this one a 27-footer from the top of the key with 1:11 to go, a fifth and final 3-pointer to put WSU back up by four. The Bears missed a 3, got the offensive rebound, Dunn missed a two, it was collected by DeAngelo Casto, and six free throws later, the game was over.
There's absolutely no underestimating the importance of this win for the Cougs. When Selection Sunday rolls around in March, this is the sort of win the committee will look at. This is a resume win no matter how you slice it. But what should make you even happier as a Coug fan is that it was pretty clear who the superior team was tonight -- and it wasn't the team with the number in front of its name.
The Cougars now await the winner of Florida State and Butler in the championship. Man, this feels good. On to the awards.
Klay Thompson Player Of The Game: Klay Thompson -- 20 points on 5-of-8 shooting (yes, you read that right), 4 assists, 3 steals ... in just 20 minutes. Despite playing with foul trouble the entire game, Thompson still was able to put himself in position to control the game down the stretch. Simply incredible. Cherish every game, folks, because we probably only have about 20 left.
Right Hand Man: So many to choose from. The Cougs had four -- FOUR! -- guys in double figures besides Klay: Faisal Aden (13), Reggie Moore (12), Brock Motum (12) and DeAngelo Casto (12). And it was that total team effort that allowed WSU to pull off the "upset" (which likely won't look like one by the end of the season).
Unsung Hero: Moore. He was instrumental in controlling the offensive tempo from the point with four assists to go with his points, but he also was a steadying factor while Klay spent extended minutes on the bench. His line wasn't gaudy, but every one of his 12 points, 6 rebounds and 4 assists mattered, all while playing 39 minutes as everyone else was in foul trouble. Huge.
Play Of The Game: Easy -- Klay's 27-foot middle finger to the referees with 1:11 to play provided an insurmountable margin.
It Was Over When: Casto collected Dunn's missed jumper with 47 seconds to go, ensuring WSU could control the remainder of the game from the free throw line, which it did with six straight makes down the stretch.
Stat Of The Game: How about two numbers? 66.3 and 40.0 -- those are the Cougars' and Bears' respective effective field goal percentages. The former is WSU's second highest of the season -- against what was the No. 6 eFG% defense in the country. The latter was the Bears' second lowest of the season. That Baylor was even able to stay in this game was a miracle of
officiating epic proportions.
Check out CougCenter's full coverage of the Diamond Head Classic here.