LAS VEGAS — Who was the last coach to lose against Washington State in the Pac-12 Tournament?
Answer: Ernie Kent, who will take his fifth shot at ending WSU’s nine-game losing streak in the conference tournament when the Cougars (11-20) face Oregon (19-12) in the first round at 8:30 p.m. Wednesday at T-Mobile Arena.
Kent almost snapped the skid last year when Washington State took a 24-17 halftime lead over the Ducks before losing 64-62 in overtime. WSU led by four in overtime before the Ducks rallied to take the lead on a layup by Payton Pritchard with 28 seconds remaining and held on when Kenny Wooten blocked Milan Acquaah’s layup at the buzzer.
“We don’t need a reminder, last year against Washington State we did not play well,” Oregon coach Dana Altman said. “We were 8-for-18 on free throws and it darn near cost us so we need to get ready to play.”
For the second year in a row, Oregon is the No. 6 seed after going 10-8 in Pac-12 play before facing the Cougars, who placed 11th in the conference at 4-14.
The sixth seed is 7-0 against the No. 11 seed in the opening round of the tournament with an average margin of victory of 5.2 points. WSU has been the 11th seed in three of those losses as it seeks to win a tournament game for the first time since a 62-40 win over Oregon in 2009, Kent’s penultimate season with the Ducks.
Oregon swept the regular-season series against the Cougars with a 78-58 win at Matthew Knight Arena on Jan. 27 followed by a 72-61 win at Washington State last Thursday. Just like last season, the Ducks and Cougars will face off in the opening round six days after playing in the final week of the regular season.
“Same thing as last year, same scenario,” Pritchard said. “We are going to come ready to play. We know who we have to stop, obviously Franks and Elleby, and we have to play our game.”
Senior Robert Franks was an all-conference selection after leading the league in scoring with 22.1 points per game while CJ Elleby made the all-freshman team with averages of 14.9 points and 7.0 rebounds. Those two combined for 34 of WSU’s points against the Ducks last week.
“They like to get up and down and can really score,” Altman said. “They shoot a lot of 3s so hopefully we will be able to get back and put our defense together. They got some transition baskets against us at their place so hopefully we do a better job there.”
Oregon has won four straight games while allowing an average of 51.5 points during that stretch. WSU is scoring 75.5 points per game, but averaged 59.5 in its two losses to the Ducks.
“The biggest thing is we are not making as many mistakes,” Altman said. “Yeah, we are playing harder, but some of that comes from confidence that guys are where they are supposed to be. It is hard to play hard when you are not sure where you are supposed to go. We are communicating so even when we are messing something up, guys are covering up because they know what the guy that is messing up is doing.”
Oregon must win four games in four days to reach the NCAA Tournament and that has not been done in the conference tournament since Colorado claimed the crown as the sixth seed in 2012.
“We want to keep playing and see if we can keep winning to get to the tournament,” Wooten said. “It is becoming more and more possible, but we are not going to look ahead.”
The Oregon-Washington State winner will face third-seeded Utah (17-13) in the second round at 8:30 p.m. on Thursday.
“I feel like we are building momentum, but at this point in the season we can’t get a loss,” Pritchard said. “We have to win out.”
Oregon is using a nine-man rotation with freshman Francis Okoro recently moving into the starting lineup and Miles Norris increasing his role off the bench. Senior guard Ehab Amin is playing 14 minutes per game during the winning streak after not playing in Oregon’s last loss to UCLA.
“We are as deep and as healthy as we have been, but depth doesn’t matter if you don’t win the first one,” Altman said. “We have to find a way to win the first game and if we are fortunate to play a second game, hopefully playing nine guys is relevant.”