LAS VEGAS – They peaked in the desert nearly a month ago, beating Arizona State and Arizona with fluid ball movement, consistent shot-making from almost everyone in the rotation and sturdy defense.
Wednesday, it was a different type of desert and a much different fate for the 11th-seeded Cougars, who wilted the same way they have much of this Pac-12 basketball season, and withered away in the first round of the conference tournament for the 10th straight season with an 84-51 loss to sixth-seeded Oregon at T-Mobile Arena.
WSU finishes the 2018-19 basketball season with just 11 wins – exactly as many as Mike Leach’s Alamo Bowl-winning football team – and 20 losses. The Cougars, who went 4-15 against their own conference, will miss out on the postseason for the seventh straight year and extend the Pac-12’s longest NCAA Tournament drought to 11 years.
It was the largest margin of defeat for the Cougars in a Pac-12/10 Tournament game, beating a 25-point loss to Cal in 2015, and the largest margin of victory for Oregon.
The one thing they’ve been trying to correct most of the last month came back to sting the Cougars – over and over again – in their sixth consecutive loss, and by the second half they looked like a team that had grown fatigued from watching the opponent turn their turnovers into quick buckets on the other end.
Constantly disrupted by an Oregon team that’s as athletic as it is long, WSU committed 20 turnovers, leading to 26 Oregon points. Over their final six games, the Cougars committed 100 turnovers, which turned into 137 points for the opposition.
“Our skill has really gotten away from us,” WSU coach Ernie Kent said. “And I think teams have made adjustments on us as well, too. … The turnovers to me are a result of just trying to force a lot of things because our offense has gotten so stagnant, so many adjustments defense has made on us.”
The miscues came early, they came often and they were a big reason why WSU went nearly 14 minutes in the first half with just one made field goal.
“Their length is definitely a problem,” WSU freshman CJ Elleby said. “You could tell with our turnovers in the first half and that was the game right there.”
For 13:53, the Cougars were sitting on just five points, courtesy of a CJ Elleby elbow 3-pointer and two Marvin Cannon free throws. Elleby’s 3 was the first made shot of the game, but the Ducks followed with an 18-0 run and scored 22 of the game’s next 24 points.
The Cougars couldn’t attribute their sluggish start to anything that happened in the hours leading up to the game. Their gameday shootaround was fine. They were sharp in warmups. Nothing, with the exception of their rocky track record, could’ve pointed to this.
“I felt like we gad good energy today,” WSU forward Jeff Pollard said. “I feel like we just might have maybe thought about it too much and needed to play our game.”
Needed to. Never did.
During WSU’s scoreless stretch, the Cougars had 11 turnovers and missed nine straight shots. At one point, they had 12 turnovers compared to three points and finished the first half with 16 turnovers compared to 20 points.
WSU drew an Oregon team that was seeded just sixth, but one that also came to Las Vegas this week sizzling, having won each of its last four games.
“They’re playing extremely well right now, and I can see them to play better and better,” said Kent, Dana Altman’s predecessor in Eugene from 1997-2010. “As long as they keep their heads in it, they have a chance to make a run.”
The Ducks went to the halftime break with a 17-point lead and opened the second half on a 9-0 run. The Cougars kept their turnover count down in the second half, committing just four more the rest of the game, but Oregon improved its 3-point totals at the same time, canning seven in the second half after making just three in the first.
For the first time this season, WSU didn’t have a single player finish in double figures. In his last college game, Pac-12 leading scorer Robert Franks scored just eight points on 2-of-9 shooting, was 0-of-6 from three-point range and turned it over three times.
“I wanted to leave it all on the line today,” Franks said. “Unfortunately our turnovers kind of slowed our offense down. It didn’t let us play our game. It got us out of rhythm. And with turnovers and them getting out in the open court, it was tough for us to find rhythm anytime during the game.”
Elleby and Marvin Cannon each had nine points for WSU, but combined to shoot 4-of-16 from the field and combined for nine turnovers – six of those from Elleby.
Oregon got a game-high 17 points from Ehab Amin, 14 from Miles Norris, 12 from Louis King and 10 from Will Richardson.
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