When WSU elected to play in the CBI despite a 15-16 record, many fans derided the decision to play in what they saw as a third-rate tournament.
Now that WSU has beaten Oregon State for the third time this season, 72-55, to reach the best-of-three final against Pittsburgh ... now that Abe Lodwick put up 23 points and 12 rebounds to set a career high in points for the second consecutive game ... now that Marcus Capers is playing the best ball of his career ...
At this point, I find it very difficult to see the experience of playing in the CBI as anything but positive for the program.
The Cougars were in control of this one from start to finish -- for the third consecutive game -- something made all the more impressive by the fact that Brock Motum sustained a right ankle injury early in the game trying to contest a shot in the lane and never returned.
In his stead, Lodwick had the game of his career. The sweet-shooting senior hit 5-of-8 threes to replace Motum's production, including a 28-footer just before halftime to give the Cougars a 10-point lead. Oregon State would never get closer than nine the rest of the way.
But Lodwick was far from the only player to step up. Reggie Moore repeatedly abused Challe Barton, who replaced Ahmad Starks (sick) in the lineup, to the tune of 22 points. Moore had averaged just over 9 points in the previous three matchups as he struggled to penetrate against Starks' quickness. No such issues tonight.
Capers' stat line won't wow you, as it had recently, but he deserves the bulk of the credit for holding Jared Cunningham to just 13 points on 5-of-12 shooting. The Cougars didn't play even one possession of zone tonight*, and Capers more or less shut down Cunningham one on one. It was one of his best defensive performances of the season, if not the best, given the competition.
*EDIT: It's been brought to my attention they did play a few possessions of zone when they were in foul trouble at the end of the first half. For whatever reason, it wasn't obvious and I didn't notice. Sorry!
Mike Ladd also deserves some recognition. He only had six points, but he also had six rebounds -- three offensive -- and was relentless mixing it up in the lane against taller players. Ladd's effort was emblematic of the entire team, which refused to back down even after losing its best player. The Cougs showed a ton of heart tonight, consistently outworking the Beavers on both ends of the floor.
I honestly couldn't be prouder of these guys. They were making great strides through mid-February, then hit a bit of a rough patch to finish out the regular season. It made me wonder if the CBI was such a great idea -- starting with that mess against Washington, the team was sort of limping to the finish line.
But after the Cougs scored 1.13 points per possession without Brock Motum ... after they held Oregon State to just 0.86 and 40 effective FG percentage (the Beavers had been above 70 the last two games) ... after they secured their third consecutive double-digit victory ...
It's hard not to have a little fun watching this run, even if it's "just" the CBI.
WSU will play Pitt on Monday in Pullman at 7 p.m. to kick off the finals. Game two (and three if necessary) will be in Pittsburgh. All games will be televisedon HDNet.