LAS VEGAS – Washington State’s annual crash-and-burn at the Pac-12 Conference basketball tournament was nearing a merciful end when a reporter turned to an old friend on press row and posed a question.
“Are you going to ask Ernie,” the man wanted to know, “what he’s going to do with his other four suits?”
WSU coach Ernie Kent said prior to the tournament that he planned to pack five suits for the trip to Las Vegas. Kent wanted it known that he would be fully prepared when the ninth-seeded Cougars downed four opponents in as many days to win their first conference championship since 1940-41.
Kent, forever nattily attired, looked great at Wednesday afternoon’s tournament opener. The same could not be said of his basketball team, an 84-59 loser to California.
Washington State started the day ranked 340th in the nation in defense. If that sounds bad, it’s because there are only 345 NCAA Division I teams. The Cougars lived down to their reputation for defensive ineptitude by granting California – a team that had been struggling mightily to win games and score points – stunningly easy access to easy baskets inside, outside and everywhere in between.
The only thing sadder than the Cougars’ performance was the sight of DaVonte Lacy, a warrior on the court and a gentleman off it, sobbing on the sideline as the final seconds of his college career ticked away.
“I gave so much,” Lacy said quietly outside the WSU locker room. “I gave everything I could to this program.”
It wasn’t nearly enough Wednesday. The Bears shot 58.5 percent from the field, including 66.7 percent on 3-pointers. Both marks were season highs against the Cougars, who already ranked among the worst teams in the nation in both statistics. Ditto for their average yield of 76.5 points per game.
“They (the Bears) did a really, really good job executing,” Kent said.
Obviously, the same could not be said of Washington State. The 25-point margin of defeat was the largest in tournament history for the Cougars, who own the worst record (5-16) in tournament history. WSU has lost six in a row at the tourney, dating back to a 2009 win over Kent’s Oregon Ducks.
The eighth-seeded Bears (18-14) split two league games with WSU (13-18) and tied the Cougars and Colorado for eighth place, but California was clearly superior on both ends of the floor at the MGM Grand Garden Arena. The Bears had lost three in a row and five of six coming into the tournament
“They had more energy and effort,” Lacy said. “At certain times, they wanted it more than us.”
How it pained Lacy to say that, particularly when he went out so quietly. The fifth-leading scorer in school history, superbly defended by Jabari Bird, scored nine points on 4-for-11 shooting. Backcourt partner Ike Iroegbu led the Cougars with 17 points.
WSU big men Josh Hawkinson and Jordan Railey put up decent numbers but struggled defensively. Hawkinson extended his school record of double-doubles to 20 by notching 14 points and 11 rebounds, and he broke Ted Werner’s 51-year-old school record of 323 rebounds in a season. Railey scored eight points early and wound up with 12 points and just three rebounds.
The Cougars wish “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas” applied to this stinker. David Kravish, a blue-collar senior post player who was averaging 11.3 points, poured in a career-high 25 against the Cougars. Guards Jordan Mathews and Tyrone Wallace added 19 and 12 points, respectively.
“Kravish was just spectacular with his play inside,” Kent said, “and we didn’t have a lot of answers for him. And I felt like we had a difficult time defending the perimeter as well.”
At one point, the Bears buried 14 of 15 shots. It’s tough to top that when you’re playing by yourself. Kravish missed his first six shots, then sank 10 of 11 the rest of the way.
Kent and his players spoke optimistically about what the future holds for the Cougars, but considerable work must be done. The Cougars lose three seniors – Lacy, Railey and guard Dexter Kernich-Drew – and all three were starters.
Lacy, who led the Cougars with 19.4 points per game last season and 16.9 this season, said he has accepted an invitation to play in the Portsmouth (Va.) Invitational. The annual tournament for aspiring pros will be held April 8-11.
“I think I can play at the next level in the NBA,” Lacy said.
Kent spoke glowingly about Lacy’s character and leadership all season. He did so again Wednesday, because Lacy will be difficult to replace, on and off the court.
“When I took over the program 11 months ago,” Kent said, “I saw a group of young men who lacked a lot of confidence. I saw a group of young men that had been through so much the (previous) two years.
“As a testament to their character, they have just been phenomenal this year in terms of allowing us to coach them. Handling themselves both on the floor and off the floor. The travel. How they handled themselves in airports and hotels. Just a really, really special group to be around.
“The record may not reflect it,” Kent said, “but they had a lot of victories this year, in my opinion, just in terms of how much growth took place within our program.”
It remains to be seen when future growth might result in a winning conference record and/or NCAA tournament berth for the first time since 2007-08, when the Cougars played in the Sweet 16. Lacy hopes he helped speed up the process.
“In a couple years,” Lacy said, “when they win the Pac-12 tournament, my name is going to be around there as laying down the groundwork for that.”