PULLMAN, Wash. (AP)—With 21 victories and a winning record in Pac-10 play assured, No. 14 Washington State is already thinking about making its first NCAA tournament appearance in 13 seasons.
Daven Harmeling scored 26 points and the Cougars beat California 59-46 on Saturday to sweep the season series.
“It would be a travesty to get shut down now, but you never know,” first-year coach Tony Bennett said. “That really solidified our chances.”
When he took over a team that hadn’t had a winning season in a decade and was picked to finish last in the league, Bennett said his goal was to get to postseason play. Now, the Cougars are only a half-game behind first-place UCLA as they chase their first Pac-10 championship.
Harmeling shot 5-of-7 on 3-pointers for Washington State (21-4, 10-3), which won its fourth game in a row and reached 21 wins for the first time since the 1991-92 team went 22-11. The Cougars have 10 conference wins for the first time since 1994-95.
Harmeling, a sophomore who is the current Pac-10 player of the week, went 7-of-9 from the floor and 7-of-9 on free throws. He accounted for nearly half of WSU’s points and had two blocks.
“Anytime my first shot is a good, open shot, I get a lot of confidence,” Harmeling said.
California (12-12, 4-8) made only 16 of 46 field-goal attempts (34 percent) in its sixth straight loss. Ryan Anderson led the Bears with 13 points and nine rebounds.
The Bears never led in the game and went long stretches without scoring before a late surge. They tied their season low of 46 points, set in a loss to UCLA.
“We hurt ourselves with turnovers,” said coach Ben Braun, whose team committed 16 turnovers. “That’s uncharacteristic of our team.
“I thought we defended pretty well, except for Harmeling,” Braun said. “Our defense really stepped up in the first half.”
Washington State led 24-18 at halftime, as both teams had trouble shooting and slowed the tempo on offense.
California scored the first five points of the second half, then went eight minutes without scoring against the best defense in the Pac-10. Washington State managed seven points during the stretch, with Harmeling’s 3-pointer lifting the Cougars to a 31-23 lead.
Ayinde Ubaka’s basket with 10:16 left broke Cal’s drought. But Washington State quickly replied with eight straight points for a 39-25 lead.
Harmeling scored the final four points in that surge, and then the next nine for Washington State as the Cougars built a 48-30 lead.
“In an effort to be patient, we sometimes missed opportunities,” Braun said.
Ivory Clark scored 12 points and Kyle Weaver had 10 for the Cougars, who shot 50 percent.
The Cougars also held a league opponent below 50 points for the third straight game, the first time the team has done that since 1951. The Bears came in averaging 70 points per game.
Washington State continued to have trouble on offense. The Cougars have scored 48, 58 and 59 points in their past three games.
Weaver said the team has been stagnant on offense, not moving much at times.
“But we’ve got guys knocking down open shots,” he said.
Both teams started slowly in the first half. Washington State led 11-6 with 7:30 left, on the strength of eight points from Harmeling. His 3 gave the Cougars a 19-9 lead with 3:58 to go.
A pair of late 3-pointers, by Omar Wilkes and Anderson, and three free throws by Wilkes, completed a 9-0 run that helped California close to 20-18.
Baskets by Clark and Derrick Low gave Washington State a 24-18 halftime lead. It was the lowest first-half point total of the season for the Bears, who shot 31 percent in the half and committed nine turnovers.
Washington State was able to score 35 points in the second half, and improved its shooting percentage from 39 percent to 69 percent.
“We did run better offense in the second half, harder drives and harder cuts,” Bennett said. “I don’t know why we can’t do that out of the blocks.”
Low, Washington State’s leading scorer, twisted his ankle and was held to two points. Bennett wasn’t sure how serious the injury was.