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Perspective | If you don’t pull for Washington State, you’re probably soulless

Perspective | If you don’t pull for Washington State, you’re probably soulless

Tooba Shakir 54 years ago 0 0

LAS VEGAS — For those galled with the lousy, no-good, wretched, soulless and otherwise distasteful realignment of college sports — a group that includes just about everyone — it’s time to start walking around muttering or barking the words, “Go Cougars.” Washington State can provide a dose of tonic even if it does open the NCAA men’s basketball tournament as a No. 7 seed Thursday night against a fellow likable, No. 10 Drake.

The surprising Cougars (24-9), of course, not only enter the tournament for the first time since 2008 when some hoop geek named Tony Bennett coached them to the Sweet 16 as a No. 4 seed that hamstrung Notre Dame to 41 points in the second round. They also represent, alongside the Oregon State women’s team, those two mass souls abandoned when the 10 other Pac-12 programs started desperate swims to the Big Ten, Big 12 and ACC.

As a bonus, Washington State’s plight lately has demonstrated that life remains imperfect, and it’s always good to cheer for imperfect.

From the back of the Cougars’ locker room at the Pac-12 tournament last week, forward Isaac Jones from Spanaway, near Tacoma, voiced the season-long feelings of the Washingtonian: “I would say it’s hard, especially, you know, as an in-state guy who grew up watching this team and ‘U-Dub,’ ” he said, using parlance for the University of Washington. “And to see it just leave is hard. Because that’s all we knew. That’s college basketball growing up.”

So right about the time their school and a fan base deeply loyal — if not quite large enough to suit the dreary TV projections — lurched toward the West Coast Conference as an affiliate member for a two-year term in a deal announced in December, the Cougars set about hatching their final Pac-12 season (at least for now). They began with the kind of perfect preseason ranking a coach might crave: 10th out of 12.

They had ample appeals. Their point guard, Myles Rice, returned after a Hodgkin’s lymphoma diagnosis in September 2022 and a cancer-free report in March 2023. Their head coach, Kyle Smith, entered his fifth season with admiration from his peers and a CV that showed a dauntlessness about adventure: Morningside Heights in New York (Columbia), the Richmond District (San Francisco), Pullman. Asked what distinguishes this team, Smith said, with Rice next to him: “Obvious one is we’ve got a point guard that paints his fingernails. Not many teams can boast that.”

Rice has done so to honor family members who have battled cancer.

As the Cougars went along, they began to pick up supporters they wouldn’t expect, just because human beings tended to find their Pac-12 fate to be lousy, no-good and so on. “Definitely seen a lot of people, even like ‘U-Dub people.’ I’ve seen them: ‘We’re with you guys! What’s going on is wrong!’ ” said Isaiah Watts, a freshman from West Seattle. “I’ve definitely seen a couple of people that’s not usually on our side, on our side.”

“Oh, yeah,” Jones said. “Other teams, teams that aren’t eliminated yet, their fans come up to us. It’s just amazing. … I mean, just yesterday [during the Pac-12 tournament], some Arizona fans, Arizona State fans, just Mountain West people, teams, I don’t remember the shirt so much, but even they support us and say what we’re doing is special, so it’s pretty amazing.”

With the situation as a motivation if not an obsession, as Watts described it, they began to cobble together their unforeseen wins.

“Magical,” Watts said of the season.

“It’s been amazing,” Jones said.

“We sing our [fight] song,” Smith said. “Everyone knows the lyrics because we’re used to winning.”

They beat visiting Arizona on Jan. 13 before 3,564 to reach 12-5 and 3-3 in the league. They beat Arizona in scary Tucson before 14,688 to reach 21-6 and 12-4. Then they did some human things that might befall any team unaccustomed to heights. They lost immediately at Arizona State, and then, after home wins over Southern California (before 8,288) and UCLA (8,096) left them at the verge of sharing the conference title with a team they’d beaten twice, they lost, 74-68, at home (9,311) against Washington, whereupon Smith did something that blared personal strength.

“We celebrated our season after we lost to Washington,” he said, “because I wanted to make sure that we keep things in perspective of all we accomplished.”

That sent them hoping and churning into the last Pac-12 tournament as all know it, where a first title game appearance and/or first title would have served as one hell of a story. “That’d be an amazing story,” Jones said. They got through Stanford, 79-62, in the quarterfinals, and then on a Friday night in Las Vegas, with conference tournaments and stories all over town, they grabbed a 50-49 lead with 3:11 left on a Jones layup in their muck-fest with Colorado.

Then March happened, with big things decided off fleeting plays, and they lost, 58-52, and life was imperfect, and Smith said of the locker room, “We had some long faces.”

The Pac-12 went on and played a final Saturday night. It had Oregon (23-11), that fourth-seeded bid-swiper, with a 75-68 besting of NCAA-bound Colorado (24-10). It had a swank T-Mobile Arena fairly spirited, if far from full. And it had closing moments of the history of the tournament tinged with the delight of N’Faly Dante, the Ducks’ joyous big man from Bamako, Mali, who shot 25 for 30 in the tournament, including 12 for 12 in the final.

Here came Dante’s tap-in with 75 seconds left, his wow of a shot block beyond the three-point arc with 35 seconds left — it made a great and fine thud — and finally, his turn of theater just after Cody Williams of Colorado swished the 15-foot last basket in a Pac-12 tournament, an innocuous matter from the foul line with eight seconds left.

Thereafter, Dante caught a long pass near the Colorado basket as he dribbled alone and the aching seconds drained. He paused, let the clock run out for good grace and then treated himself to a thunderous exhibition jam, an international man giving final punctuation to a regional tournament before his program made off for the Big Ten and everybody else could make off toward fresh Cougar fandom while maybe even trying to learn that fight song.

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