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'We proved that we belong': Washington State keeps head high after second-round loss to Iowa State

Mar. 23—OMAHA, Neb. — Not a tear appeared on the faces of Washington State players, whose season had just ended with a 67-56 loss to Iowa State in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. In the locker room, where the Cougars went to digest the end of the program's best season in a decade and a half, players hardly seemed devastated.

"I wouldn't even say I'm upset," said WSU wing Jaylen Wells, who scored a team-best 20 points. "Losing hurts, definitely. It hurts to lose. Definitely could have made more shots in the second half. But I know I gave my hardest. At the end of the day, when you go lay in your bed, I can live with myself with the effort I gave."

It's clear that for how much WSU wanted to win, wanted to earn a spot in next week's Sweet 16, the Cougs also understand the stakes. They were picked 10th in the preseason Pac-12 poll. They finished second. They made the program's first NCAA Tournament in 16 years. They bowed out with a loss to a team that has looked like a national title contender all year long.

That's why they could stomach the end, the promising 7-0 start erased by a barrage of Iowa State 3-pointers, which swung the game. They could accept the Cyclones' swarming defense wearing out the Cougs to the tune of 13 turnovers for 21 points. They could see that, for as much as they wanted to extend their season by another week, they accomplished a lot.

Even within the loss, which Iowa State created by making 7 of 14 3-pointers compared to WSU's 5 of 23, the Cougs looked like they belonged. They stifled the Cyclones into a 1-for-13 start from the field. They took a 14-6 lead on a 3-pointer from senior wing Andrej Jakimovski, whose only made basket came on that sequence. WSU lost the game — ISU's ball pressure kept Isaac Jones to just eight points on four shots — but it won plenty of the moments.

"We were unintimidated," said WSU coach Kyle Smith, who led his team to the program's best season since 2008. "We played some teams like that. Just didn't play well enough to win, to be honest, but we stuck to our game plan. We knew we had to keep our turnovers down."

That was part of the Cougs' undoing. They had five turnovers in the first half and eight in the second, costly mistakes on which a defensive-oriented team like Iowa State feasted. The Cyclones parlayed those into 21 points. Wells committed three turnovers, as did guard Kymany Houinsou, while Jones and center Oscar Cluff each had two .

In previous games, the Cougars found ways to counter mistakes by making shots. In Saturday's game, they had no such luck. Wells followed a 16-point first half with a four-point second, finishing just 2 for 11 — 0 for 9 in the second half — from beyond the arc. WSU guard Myles Rice finished strongly, with nine points in the second half, but it wasn't enough.

It wasn't enough to make up for the way Iowa State pulled away by knocking down an array of 3-pointers, the turning point. Early in the second half, Rice buried back-to-back shots to give WSU a 36-35 lead — right about when the Cyclones turned it on.

The avalanche began with ISU guard Tamin Lipsey, who stepped back for a tough 3-pointer, igniting a CHI Health Center crowd heavy on Cyclones fans, whose campus in Ames is just 2 1/2 hours away from Omaha. Then guard Curtis Jones joined in, knocking down a 3-pointer for a 42-35 lead.

The Cougs answered — Wells countered with a midrange jumper — but the deluge kept pouring. ISU wing Milan Momcilovic rose up and hit a 3-pointer, electrifying the arena.

WSU answered again. Rice followed with a 3-pointer. But at that point, the Cougs were playing from behind, trying to counter shot-making with shot-making. So ended their season.

"They put so much heat (on you)," said Smith, whose team shot 43% from the floor. "They double you. They blitz you at the top of the floor. They throw everyone at you on the baseline. So they're unique."

In some ways, the end of the game unfolded like the end of the Cougars' recent games. At the beginning of the month, their charmed regular season came to an end with a loss to rival Washington, an unsightly offensive showing from WSU, which hit just 4 of 24 from beyond the arc.

Two games later, in a loss to Colorado in the Pac-12 Tournament semifinals, the Cougs made just 4 of 19 3-pointers. On Thursday, in Washington State's win over Drake in the opening round of the national dance, the Cougs connected on 7 of 14.

Then came Saturday's game, in which WSU made just four 3-pointers of consequence, the fifth coming from guard Isaiah Watts with 17 seconds left. If the scout on WSU wasn't clear, it came close: Double Jones on the post and force others to beat you on the perimeter. The recipe worked for many of the teams that tried it.

When WSU found ways to make shots from the perimeter, at least in recent games, it found wins. When the Cougs didn't, they faced losses. They weren't quite figured out, but after 30-plus games across five months, savvy opposing coaches developed a plan.

"Obviously, the second half, definitely missed more shots," said Wells, whose team made 2 of 11 3-pointers in the second half. "They were good looks. Just got more work to do."

For WSU, the next kind of work involves putting the pieces together on the end of this season. What's next for Smith, a hot name on the coaching market? Or for Wells, who said he will "think about" going pro? Things were a little clearer for WSU injured guard Joseph Yesufu, who said he has secured a medical redshirt and plans on returning to Pullman next season.

But a lot remains unknown for Washington State, which is headed to the West Coast Conference for the next two seasons as part of a scheduling agreement while WSU and Oregon State attempt to rebuild the Pac-12. For now, though, Smith couldn't go there. He hadn't thought that far ahead, a departure from the norm for a man who took Washington State to places it hadn't been in several years.

"It's really hard," Smith said. "I think it will wash over me in a couple weeks. A year from now, whatever. But you're trying to stay present, enjoy it and also be prepared. And there are so many distractions coming at you. And going through this, it's an awesome experience and first for me as a head coach. Honor to coach these guys.

"They're easy, man. They were a joy, and appreciate them. Can't thank them enough. We talk about gratitude and being thankful. We're thankful every day. And today was no different.

"Like I said, we started five years ago trying to build this thing into something, and two NITs, and now an NCAA Tournament, NCAA Tournament win. I was unaware, but people said we didn't belong. So we proved that we belonged to say the least. It's an honor."