The 2022-23 Washington State Cougars came to a close with gut-wrenching loss in the first round of the NIT to the Eastern Washington Eagles, 81-74.
Despite being without sophomore superstar Mouhamed Gueye, WSU (17-17) rallied from nine down at half to take a nine-point lead of their own. EWU (23-10) closed out the game with a clutch three pointer from Steele Venters with 16 seconds to go and collected a season-ending offensive rebound in the closing seconds. Venters scored a game-high 27.
With Gueye out due to a back injury, the Cougars opted to go small with a starting five of; Justin Powell, Jabe Mullins, D.J. Rodman, T.J. Bamba and Andrej Jakimovski.
Eastern Washington was able to expose the Cougars lack of height inside early. The Eagles floated passes into the paint on height mismatches for easy buckets and couldn’t miss from downtown either. As the Cougars moved their defensive resources inside, it allowed the Eagles to find open looks from outside. While WSU was able to match shots early, the Eagles just couldn’t miss in the first half, shooting a scorching 55.6% from the field and 41.7% from three in the first half. The Eagles soared to a nine point lead on a 10-0 run that kept WSU off the board for nearly three minutes, holding the nine-point edged into the break.
To whoever changed their seats to switch-up the mojo before the second half, you delivered. WSU came flying out of the locker room looking completely recharged. Bamba got things started with a layup to spark a 7-0 run capped off by a Powell three to bring the lead down to two. The Eagles answered with a Venters three, but WSU continued to put the pressure on. They finally broke through with Mullins’ second trey of the half to tie the game. As the old saying goes, when it rains, it pours. Powell, Rodman and Bamba each hit a three to make it a 12-0 run and flip the deficit a full 180 degrees as WSU jumped out in front with a nine point lead. All the momentum had swung shifted on the color palette from Eagle red to Cougar crimson.
The Eagles wouldn’t be held flightless for much longer. After Venters and Jakimovski traded three point plays, the Eagles used a 10-0 run to fly right back into the lead. The game shifted into a boxing match as each team went punch-for-punch, the leading changing back and forth six times over the next near six minutes with Venters putting the Eagles back in front with 2:23 to go.
Trailing by one with 1:20 to go, Rodman continued his to come up big with a trey — giving him 23 points on the night — to put WSU back in front. The Eagles immediately answered with a quick layup to tie the game. On the ensuing possession, Rodman fired off another three that just rimmed out, giving EWU a chance to take the lead with 37 seconds to go. With less than 20 seconds to go, Angel Allegri attacked the basket and found Venters standing alone in the corner, whipping a pass right to him. Venters continued to rip the Cougars hearts out, connecting to put EWU up three with 16 seconds to go.
With a chance to tie the game, WSU found Jakimovski open in the corner for a three that couldn’t connect. The Cougars were quick to foul Venters with five seconds to go, sending him to the stripe for a one-and-one, just needing the first one to fall to ice the game. The Eagles put nobody in the lane to try and slow down the Cougars in the event Venters did miss. And he did. However, nobody got a body on Venters, who was able to easily collect his own offensive rebound, killing another two seconds and giving him two mores chances at the free throw line. Venters calmly knocked down both to put the dagger in the Cougars season and Cedric Coward put the exclamation point with a steal and dunk before the horn sounded.
I’ve always believed a teams last game of the season typically tells the entire story of their season. This one was no different. WSU comes into the game down a vital piece in Gueye. Similar to how WSU started the season without both Dishon Jackson and Myles Rice. The Cougars struggle out the gate, turn things around in the second half, capture the momentum, but just couldn’t quite close it out at the end.
Despite the tough ending, this season still saw tons of progress for WSU men’s basketball. After it looked like the sky was falling early in the year — starting 5-9 overall and winless in their first three conference games — this team captured a road win at an Arizona team that was rewarded a two seed in the NCAA tournament after winning the Pac-12 tournament. They then went on a tear and finished fifth in the Pac-12, its highest finish since Tony Bennett was leading the charge.
Don’t let this loss fool you, this program is still going in the right direction. The ship endured a rough sea, but it’s still afloat and progressing towards the promised land.
The offseason awaits and WSU already received great news on senior day when Rodman announced his last minute decision to return. I’m sure he isn’t the only one in that locker room who feels there is still unfinished business for the Wheatfield Underdogs.
Oh and by the way, the women’s basketball team tips off their third straight NCAA tournament run on Saturday. There is still important basketball to be played for Washington State.