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Dave Boling: Washington State 'hurt' itself in loss to Colorado, but still have time to remedy

Mar. 15—LAS VEGAS — Coming back to Pullman with an NCAA berth assured should be good salve for the Washington State Cougars' disappointment Friday night.

Although fresh off the 58-52 loss to Colorado in the Pacific-12 Conference Tournament semifinals, the Cougs were still stinging from having played a game below their standards when the opportunity for an unprecedented tournament title was at stake.

Playing with laudable heart and lamentable mechanics, the Cougars couldn't quite close the deal against a fierce Colorado defense, and the Buffaloes now get the chance against Oregon Saturday in the title game.

Even with a late lead and several chances to win it at the end, the Cougars failed to convert opportunities and didn't take care of the ball well enough.

The 19 turnovers kept the WSU offense from ever finding rhythm.

"The turnovers kind of stick in our craw a little," said Smith, who was named the conference Coach of the Year while also being a semifinalist for a national Coach of the Year award. "We take a lot of pride in not turning it over, so that hurts."

Smith cited the Colorado defense for the bulk of their problems. "It was just hard to get a shot. I can live with taking hard shots, but giving them the ball is tough."

Fifty-two points was the Cougars' lowest point total of the season. Colorado didn't fare much better against the WSU defense, but came up with nine steals while committing seven fewer turnovers.

"That wasn't the prettiest game by any means, but you had two teams going after it and battling," Colorado coach Tad Boyle said.

Before this game tipped off, the 24-8 Cougs — the Pac's No. 2 seed — were already assured of their first NCAA berth since 2008. Colorado, though, was considered a bubble team, and probably needed a title or at least a title-game appearance to be included in the field.

Considering this is the final tournament of the Pac-12, given the defection of 10 members, the Cougars ran out of time to claim a championship.

So, what now?

Asked if the NCAA bid would be salve on the pain of Friday's loss, Smith squinted. "It hurts too much right now to go there," he said. "We had some long faces (in the locker room), our guys really wanted to win. I said that part of our deal these two weeks is to have fun, but it hurts to beat yourself a little bit."

Colorado has won seven games in a row and was the No. 3 seed in the tournament, so there was no embarrassment to lose to the Buffs. But it was far from the quality of performance the Cougars had made most nights during the season, particularly during their strong run through conference play — including a sweep of highly ranked Arizona.

It will take Smith and Cougs a little time to heal before they start preparing for their unknown NCAA opponent.

Before this game, some bracket analysts had touted the Cougs a No. 5 seed with a strong chance of having to travel only up the highway to play virtual home games in the first two rounds at Spokane.

The suggestion after the game was that Friday's loss might unravel that advantageous seeding.

But all losses hurt competitive athletes who have created high expectations for themselves. The Cougars of the 2023-24 season have proven themselves to be of that caliber.

Fortunately, this loss didn't mean they'd be clearing out their lockers and moving on to whatever awaits any college athlete or coaching staff in this transient era.

Instead, they'll prepping and packing for the first round of a tournament no Cougars have enjoyed in more than a decade.