When Brock Motum went down with a sprained ankle early in WSU's CBI Tournament semifinal with Oregon State, most assumed the Cougars would struggle to score points going forward.
But for two games, WSU defied the odds and thrived without its leading scorer. Tonight, his absence finally caught up with the Cougs.
Pitt evened the championship series of the CBI at a game apiece with a 57-53 victory at the Petersen Events Center, and the inability of WSU to score points was the main driving force in the loss.
The Panthers have become well known for their defense under Jamie DIxon, but this year they rank just 151st in adjusted defensive efficiency. Tonight was a return to their roots, as they consistently made life uncomfortable for the Cougars. They crowded shooters on the perimeter and stifled WSU's movement early on.
Most importantly, they took away Abe Lodwick as a credible scoring threat, leading to a number of possessions that led to Reggie Moore dribbling without a purpose and forcing up a contested shot. The Cougs, who would shoot just 4-of-13 from three on the night, wound up trailing 29-20 at halftime.
Success in a series comes down to the ability to make adjustments, and while Pitt's adjustment had some initial success, it was WSU's halftime adjustment that allowed the Cougs to nearly come back and secure the CBI title. And the adjustment was led by Moore.
The junior guard resembled his sometimes-unstoppable freshman self in the final 20 minutes, not only driving into the lane at will and drawing fouls, but also finishing around the rim in a way we generally haven't seen in two years. He hit 4-of-8 shots and 8-of-10 free throws, the last two of which pulled the Cougs into a tie at 49 with just under two minutes to go.
Pitt pulled ahead on a Lamar Patterson jumper, and when Moore missed a short jumper on the ensuing possession, it appeared the Cougs would get another crack at tying the game as the ball was volleyed out of bounds by a Pitt player. But the ref under the basket blew the call -- no other way to describe it -- and the Panthers took advantage by scoring the next time down the floor to go up by two possessions.
It was a gap WSU never could overcome.
While it would have been nice to wrap up the series with a victory tonight, there still were a lot of positives to take away, starting with Moore. The second half was as dominant as I've seen him since midway through the 2009-2010 season, and it was done in a way that is completely sustainable. If this serves as some kind of catalyst -- a reminder that this is how good he can be -- then WSU will be better for it next season.
Additionally, the Cougs continued their run of solid defense; over the last three halves of basketball, they've held Pitt to exactly 1 point per possession. That, frankly, is excellent, despite the fact that WSU had trouble getting stops in the last couple of minutes. (It didn't hurt that Pitt was missing leading scorer Ashton Gibbs, but the point remains.)
A big part of that was holding the Panthers to just 31 OR%, and it was thanks to the Cougars' guards aggressively crashing down on the defensive glass. DaVonte Lacy, usually known more for his 3-point shooting, picked up a team-high seven boards -- six of them defensive.
It's evident these are two pretty evenly matched teams. Friday's decisive game three should be fun.