Henry Bibby looked insulted.
It was a routine meeting with reporters the day before a game, and the USC coach had been asked how his team would react to the deliberate brand of slow-down basketball employed by new Washington State Coach Dick Bennett.
“I’m not worried about Dick Bennett and what he does,” Bibby huffed. “I’m concerned about what we do, how we’re going to play the game, and how we’re going to approach the game.
“They slow it down and we’re going to try to pick up the tempo, which we try to do against every team, not just these guys.”
Turns out the Cougars turned it up on the Trojans on Saturday.
Washington State’s 76-61 defeat of USC in front of 3,056 in Spokane Arena represented a season high in points scored for the Cougars, who had been averaging 54.7 points. They also shot 58.1% from the field, highest for a USC opponent.
Fittingly, it was a Jekyll-and-Hyde afternoon for the Trojans, who followed their best shooting half this season (60%) with their worst (29.6%).
“They were just doubling down more [in the second half],” said junior power forward Jeff McMillan, who had 11 points but a USC career-low two rebounds, both in the second half.
“They were pressing the ball, our passes when we tried to throw it out. We missed a lot of easy shots too. That’s on us.”
USC (7-6, 2-2 in Pacific 10 Conference) had its nine-game winning streak against the Cougars (8-6, 2-2) end thanks mostly to the Trojans’ inability to score against a 1-3-1 zone defense in the second half.
“With the zone, I knew they were going to have to go over the top,” Bennett said. “Thankfully, they weren’t making shots so it helped us.”
Getting pounded on the boards also hurt the Trojans’ chances. Washington State outrebounded USC, 35-16.
“I just wasn’t in the game mentally,” said McMillan, who had averaged 9.3 rebounds. “That’s my game -- I rebound -- and it just wasn’t there.
"[And] every time I got an open shot, I rushed it.”
USC knew it would need equal doses of pressure and patience to withstand the mind-numbing style of Washington State. It got neither in the second half and the disciplined Cougars took full advantage while scooting by the Trojans.
“We didn’t play together,” said junior guard Errick Craven, who had 12 points and three assists. “When you see people look off people or force shots, that’s not together.”
With the Trojans nursing a 43-40 lead early in the second half, they committed a turnover and freshman point guard Rodrick Stewart was called for an intentional foul on a streaking Jeff Varem.
The momentum-shifting foul jump-started the Cougars on an 8-0 run that was extended to 15-5 and gave them a 55-48 lead with 10 minutes 43 seconds to play.
It wasn’t until 7:14 remained that someone other than McMillan or senior guard Desmon Farmer, who had 22 points and four rebounds, scored for USC in the second half.
USC cut the deficit to 62-58 with 4:39 to play on a Craven three-point basket, but the Trojans went as cold as the weather, and Washington State eventually built a 16-point advantage to close things out.
The Cougars got 22 points and seven rebounds from Varem, a junior guard.
“We gave up layups,” Bibby said. “We didn’t play defense. We didn’t stop them at anything they were doing.
“They played a zone and we didn’t attack it. We got tentative. Nobody stepped up.”
In losing to the Cougars for the first time since Jan. 30, 1999, USC failed in its attempt to pull out a Pac-10 road sweep for the first time since December 2001, when the Trojans beat Washington and Washington State.
“We had a chance, but we couldn’t run in the second half because we had no rebounds,” Bibby said.