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PACIFIC 10 CONFERENCE TOURNAMENT

Trojans make a late-night run

USC, unperturbed by a post-dinnertime tipoff and Washington State's deliberate pace, beats the Cougars, 70-61, to reach today's title game.

March 10, 2007|Ben Bolch | Times Staff Writer

Washington State is almost never in a hurry on offense. The Cougars' possessions could be described as deliberate, more deliberate, and wake-us-when-they-get-off-a-shot.

Combine that sleepy style with a bedtime start, and it's typically lights out for an opponent.

But USC might have been the one team in the Pacific 10 Conference that didn't need a wake-up call against Washington State, having suffered a pair of excruciating last-second losses to the Cougars during the regular season.

Providing an early jolt of energy with a flurry of three-pointers and then responding to every Washington State run, third-seeded USC finally knocked off the second-seeded Cougars, 70-61, in a Pacific Life Pac-10 tournament semifinal Friday night at Staples Center.

Junior guard Gabe Pruitt finished with a game-high 26 points for the Trojans (23-10), who advanced to play fourth-seeded Oregon (25-7) in the championship game at 3 p.m. today -- a rematch of the 2003 conference title game won by the Ducks. USC won both games against Oregon in the regular season.

"During warmups I was kind of feeling it, and I knew if I got open looks I could knock it down," said Pruitt, who made six of seven three-point attempts.

Added Coach Tim Floyd: "I hope you're feeling it tomorrow too."

After falling behind by 10 points with 9 minutes 51 seconds to play on Pruitt's sixth three-point basket, the Cougars (25-7) surged back to make it 60-55 on a three-pointer by guard Taylor Rochestie with 3:23 to go.

Washington State then got the ball back after forward Robbie Cowgill drew a charging foul on USC senior guard Lodrick Stewart, but center Aron Baynes missed consecutive shots from point-blank range and the ball went out of bounds to the Trojans.

USC gave the Cougars an opening by missing three of its next four free throws, but Washington State went cold to close out a second half in which it shot only 25%. Cowgill missed a hook shot and then Derrick Low missed a three-point attempt on the Cougars' next possession.

Sophomore forward Keith Wilkinson then tipped in a miss to give USC a 63-55 advantage with one minute left, and all the Trojans had to do from there was make a couple of free throws.

Washington State opened the second half with a similar approach to the one it used six days earlier in Pullman, where Baynes scored nine consecutive points "and looked like Bill Walton," according to Floyd.

Baynes drew a foul and made a pair of free throws on the Cougars' first possession Friday but then committed a turnover and later was called for a double-dribble violation.

USC freshman center Taj Gibson was the aggressor at the other end of the court, scoring the Trojans' first seven points of the second half. Gibson finished with 15 points and nine rebounds.

The Trojans built an 11-point lead late in the first half behind a successful long-range attack that included four three-point baskets by Pruitt and two apiece by Stewart (15 points) and junior swingman Nick Young (10).

Collectively, USC made eight of 12 three-point attempts in the first half.

"We can't afford to come out unprepared defensively," Washington State Coach Tony Bennett said. "If we're just off a tiny bit on the defensive end, it hurts us all night. For most of the first half, we were hanging on for dear life."

After looking out of sync for much of the opening 20 minutes, Washington State closed the half on a 9-2 run, with Low making a three-pointer at the buzzer to pull the Cougars to within 38-34.

At that point the game was starting to resemble the first meeting between the teams this season, when USC squandered an 11-point lead over the final 12:48 amid a flurry of turnovers and missed free throws and Washington State pulled out a 58-55 win at the Galen Center.

But the Trojans collected themselves at the right moments during a game in which they committed a season-low eight turnovers, earning a good night's rest against a team that makes most opponents toss and turn.

"I want to try to get to sleep as soon as possible," Pruitt said afterward. "I'm kind of tired."

*

ben.bolch@latimes.com

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