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Washington State slowly hitting stride

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DENVER – Slow wins. Defense wins. They aren't popular, they aren't TV-friendly and they don't necessarily have to go together.

But they work beautifully as a tandem for the Washington State Cougars. And now that Wazzu is farther in the NCAA tournament than it has been in 67 years, they both deserve a nod.

Notre Dame brought the edge in talent, depth, speed and offensive options into Saturday's East Region second-round game with the Cougars. The Irish brought the best player on the floor, Luke Harangody.

They left with a foot in the behind, delivered ever so methodically by Tony Bennett's gritty, cohesive team. The Cougars held Notre Dame to 24.5-percent shooting, bullied Harangody into a 3-of-17 night and ran – er, walked – away 61-41 winners.

"What they did is really established their will and their style," said Notre Dame coach Mike Brey, whose team was held to its season low in points.

"We didn't yield," said Washington State coach Tony Bennett, whose team likely will get a shot at North Carolina in the East Regional semifinals Thursday in Charlotte. "We didn't let them get easy shots. We made them earn all night. If we can do that, we're always in good shape. It feels great, a big step for our program."

What a group. What a story. This is a program that has been middling to terrible for most of its existence, with the occasional surge under George Raveling in the early 1980s, Kelvin Sampson in the mid-'90s.

Dick Bennett came in 2003, bringing with him the style of play that made Wisconsin basketball one of the nation's leading insomnia cures in the 1990s. The Cougars didn't win in three seasons under Dick Bennett, but the people of Pullman, Wash., appreciated the improved effort, defense, team concept.

Then little Bennett – a scrappy, lefty guard for his dad at Wisconsin-Green Bay – took over last season and had one of the best debut seasons in college basketball history. Wazzu went 26-8, got to the tournament for the first time in 13 years, got to the second round for the first time in 24.

Bennett swept national coach of the year honors, succeeding wildly with a team that, frankly, had no business winning 15 games on paper. But as everyone should see now, they are a collective force, despite their lack of individual star power.

Bennett has a former Tulane transfer with a bum knee (point guard Taylor Rochestie); an Australian center (Aron Baynes) who would make a great bouncer; a power forward (Robbie Cowgill) who is as gangly as he is scraggly; a lightly recruited small forward (Kyle Weaver) from the homeland, Beloit, Wis.; and a shooting guard (Derrick Low) from Hawaii, not exactly a haven for hoops talent.

And the bench? It includes dark horses such as Denver-area product Daven Harmeling – whose only other college offer was from the University of Denver. It basically exists to give the starters an occasional breather.

The first five do it all for Washington State, which is what made Saturday's performance, on a short turnaround and against a team with much depth, even more extraordinary.

Understand, these guys can play. Weaver is sleek, slick and slithery, an active slasher. Low is a deadly shooter who scored 18 Saturday. Cowgill is versatile and Baynes is powerful. Rochestie is a savvy extension of Bennett. His arrival last season clearly was a key development.

"First of all, he's a lefty. We know he's got a good start on things," Bennett said of Rochestie. "He's real competitive. … There's no coincidence how our team (blossomed) since he came; it's been everybody. But allowing guys like Derrick Low and Kyle Weaver not to play as much point guard, and Taylor to take on those responsibilities, just his clutch plays have really given us momentum and been part of our turnaround."

Mostly, it has been about defense. Even as the Cougars slumped this season, losing three straight tight games to California, Stanford and UCLA, they were defending. On Saturday, they befuddled the Irish from start to finish, with a simple man-to-man concept that relies on communication and yields no gaps.

"There's no secrets," Weaver said. "We play our pack defense, try to keep the ball out of the paint, make the opposing team shoot tough shots."

Slow, defensive basketball. This is how Washington State must play.

"We haven't been able to out-recruit Arizona, UCLA with talent and just play a wide-open game," Bennett said. "We try to get kids that fit our system. The bottom line is, we feel that system gives us the best chance to play, hopefully get to the NCAA tournament, advance, play against the elite teams in our league and make runs."

Saturday was an historic night for Washington State basketball. The Cougars got to the third NCAA title game, in 1941, and lost 39-34 to Wisconsin (no, Dick Bennett did not coach both teams).

Since then? Very little. Coming into this weekend, the program had four appearances, one of which came last year under Tony Bennett. The others were in 1980, 1983 and 1994. Two victories, one apiece in 1983 and 2007. Zero advances out of the first weekend of play.

"That's what Washington State's about, Pullman," Bennett said. "It's a fighter, underdog mentality. The people embrace that here. There's nothing better than going to a place where people don't think it can be done."

If North Carolina takes care of Arkansas on Sunday as expected, the Tar Heels will get a piece of Wazzu. And if I'm North Carolina, I don't want anything to do with Wazzu. The Cougars are playing with the proverbial house money. And they're doing it very slowly, and very well.

Joe Rexrode covers Michigan State for the Lansing (MI) State Journal.

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