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Diamond Head Classic: WSU loses to Northern Iowa, New Mexico up in finale

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The Cougars' unnecessary sloppiness with the ball undermined what should have been a winning offensive performance.

James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

Washington State lost its second consecutive game in the Diamond Head Classic, this one a mistake-filled affair to Northern Iowa, 63-59.

The Cougars now will face New Mexico on Christmas day in their third and final game of the tournament. Tipoff is scheduled for 10 a.m. PT on ESPN3, which means it is only available to be watched via streaming on your laptop or mobile device via WatchESPN. You also can listen to the game online via TuneIn.com.

Heading into yesterday's game, it was believed the only way WSU could screw up offensively against the Panthers was to, well, screw up offensively. UNI doesn't offer a ton of resistance around the basket and don't take the ball away with any great frequency, so it was going to be on the Cougars to simply not give the ball away, something that seemed reasonable after a good performance on that front against No. 3 Oklahoma.

Mission failed -- miserably, I might add. WSU exceeded its season percentage on both 2s and 3s, which should have been enough to win the game. Instead, the Cougars turned the ball over 19 times -- a whopping 31 percent of their possessions, by far a season high -- to sabotage what otherwise was a solid statistical* offensive performance.

*If you watched the game, you know it wasn't pretty, and you know that WSU was having an awfully hard time getting anything going in the halfcourt. While true, the bottom line is that the Cougs did shoot well enough that they should have been much better on a per possession basis than they were.

"It is disheartening because we did a lot of things right; we shot the ball well, we rebounded the ball well, I thought we defended one of the best 3-point shooting teams in the country well -- giving up only four 3s -- but the thing we didn't do well was take care of the ball," Cougars coach Ernie Kent said. "We had 19 turnovers and gave up 15 points off those turnovers."

The other thing that didn't help was the paucity of free throws for WSU. The lack of fouls called on UNI allowed the Panthers to use them as a weapon late in the game, forcing the Cougars to burn clock when what they needed was quick score. Some have decried the free throw disparity in the game -- WSU shot just five free throws, while Northern Iowa shot 23 -- but UNI is actually one of the very best teams in the nation at not putting their opponent on the free throw line; in fact, it's what has allowed an otherwise statistically poor defense to rank in the top 100 in adjusted defensive efficiency.

When you combine that with the fact that WSU doesn't go to the free throw line a lot anyway (the guards don't generally attack and the bigs don't draw contact around the basket) ... well, you get what you got.

If you (again) are looking for a silver lining amidst the mounting losses, it's that the defense continues to be pretty decent. Kent was right: UNI is one of the best 3-point shooting teams in the country, and WSU did a great job limiting their looks to tough attempts. The Panthers normally make above 40 percent of their attempts, but made just 27 percent last night, the biggest reason the Cougs were able to limit them to just 1.02 points per possession.

Unfortunately, it was a 3-pointer made off an unlucky scramble that proved to be the difference.

Even with WSU's major turnover issues, the game was tight down the stretch -- overall, there were 19 lead changes and 10 ties. A Junior Longrus putback of a missed 3-pointer by Que Johnson brought the Cougs to within two at 57-55 with just over two minutes to play. Longrus drew a foul, too, but he would (unsurprisingly) miss the free throw. Still, WSU was in good position, simply needing a stop to have an opportunity to tie or take the lead.

They couldn't quite get one. Wes Washpun drove into the lane and was rejected by Josh Hawkinson, but Washpun got the ball back. In the scramble, Hawkinson had lost one of UNI's most deadly shooters, and Paul Jesperson (season 3-point percentage: 43) hit the dagger with 1:40 remaining that more or less ended the WSU threat.

WSU did have a chance to tie the game after pulling back to within three in the final minute, but the Cougars struggled mightily to get off a clean look, and their eventual 3-point shot by Ike Iroegbu was well off the mark.

The Cougs now face the Lobos in a matchup of the two 0-2 teams in the tournament, and the similarities go beyond that. Both WSU and New Mexico are in the midst of downturns in their seasons; the Cougars have lost four of their last seven games, including all three against kenpom.com top 100 competition, while New Mexico has lost three straight, including to Auburn and BYU in this tournament.

The Lobos are led by Elijah Brown, who is incredibly efficient from just about everywhere on the floor. He's going to be a handful in much the same way Washpun was for the Cougars. Playing second fiddle is coach Craig Neal's son, Cullen. He's the team's point guard, and while he's a good shooter, he's also questionable when he gets into the lane.