CHARLOTTE, N.C. — In what arguably was the best men’s basketball season in Washington State’s history, the Cougars had no shot to get past the No. 1-ranked Tar Heels of North Carolina.
Not when the Cougars shoot 31 percent from the floor. Not when they hit just 2-of-16 3-point attempts. Not when they could string together three consecutive possessions and score only once, and that only after they were down 19.
What those numbers added up to Thursday night is a 68-47 Tar Heels East Regional semifinal romp, moving top-seed North Carolina (35-2) into an Elite Eight showdown with Louisville.
And ending the Cougars’ 26-9 season.
“Pretty often I thought we got good looks,” said senior Kyle Weaver, who struggled through a 3-of-13 shooting night, part of a 10-point, seven-rebound, five-assist and four-turnover stat line. “It just wouldn’t go down tonight, even inside.
“We missed a few bunnies, a few put-backs that we usually put down, so I think it was more of us than them at times.”
WSU coach Tony Bennett was even more emphatic.
“Offensively we needed to be much more solid then we showed,” he said. “You can’t beat a team like this if you can’t score some points.”
And defend better than the usually stingy Cougars did, despite holding the Tar Heels 20 points under their season average.
“You look at the points, (North Carolina) might have done some things to hold that down,” Bennett said. “We held them to 43 percent … but it wasn’t one of our better defensive efforts. It wasn’t awful, but we needed to play a complete game on both ends of the floor and we didn’t do that.
“I didn’t feel like we were as tough defensively, I wish we would have been better defensively, it was just OK at best.”
And OK wasn’t good enough, not with a majority of the 19,092 at the Charlotte Bobcats Arena wearing Carolina blue. And not against a Heels team that had more weapons — even though many were misfiring early.
“The first 10 minutes we got the looks we wanted, we got into the paint offensively, we got some rhythm 3s, drives, but didn’t make them,” Bennett said. “Defensively, we were solid early. I don’t know if the lack of being able to knock down shots caused us to not be quite on top of our game from then on.”
With 9 minutes before halftime, the Atlantic Coast Conference-champion Tar Heels led by just one, 15-14.
The Cougars were hitting 50 percent of their shots, North Carolina was struggling against a WSU defense geared to slow down point guard Ty Lawson and contain All-American center Tyler Hansbrough, and the Carolina-centric crowd was sitting on its hands.
Then the Cougars went cold. Palouse-in-December cold.
“Yeah, it was freezing out there,” Weaver said.
In the final 12 minutes of the half WSU was 2-of-12 from the floor.
“We thought we were really good,” defensively, UNC coach Roy Williams said, “but, let’s be honest, they missed some open shots. … Washington (State) had some shots they would normally make and they missed some tonight.”
Slowly, inexorably, the usually fast-paced Tar Heels built the lead.
Five, six, nine. The lead grew. Then came the knife.
With reserve Danny Green converting a 10-foot jumper and Lawson following 50-seconds later with a 3-pointer at the buzzer, the halftime lead was 14 and the fourth-seeded Cougars’ 26-9 season was all but done.
“We couldn’t afford it to be 14 going into the half,” Bennett said of the largest halftime deficit WSU faced all season. “Against a team like this, it’s almost too much to overcome.”
And North Carolina showed it is a deep team.
With leading scorer Hansbrough shackled — 0 of 4 for just 2 points — and Lawson unable to get by Derrick Low — no assists and two turnovers — the Carolina starting five, like WSU’s, needed a lift.
North Carolina got it, the Cougars didn’t.
Into the breach for the Tar Heels stepped Green, a reserve junior forward from New York. In the first 20 minutes he hit 5-of-7 shots, including two 3-pointers. His 12 first-half points — he finished with 15 — supplied North Carolina its edge.
“We did the job on Hansbrough in the first half,” Bennett said, “but he was the wild-card guy for them. He kind of stretched the game open for them. He was the difference to spot them that lead they had going into the half.”
The only unexpected offense WSU received all night came from junior center Aron Baynes, who outplayed Hansbrough until fouling out with 5:44 left. The 6-foot-10, 270-pounder muscled his way to 14 points, hitting 6-of-8 shots, and eight rebounds.
Hansbrough, who got going in the second half, finished with a game-high 18 points — on 6-of-15 from the floor — and nine rebounds.
“(Baynes) grabbed some rebounds and showed his physical toughness,” Bennett said. “This was a game where physical toughness was going to be at a premium.”
So was scoring, and the Cougars couldn’t pay the price.
Low, who finished his career along with Weaver and Robbie Cowgill, shot 6-of-16 from the floor en route to 14 points. Cowgill had a 1-of-7, 2-point, 8-rebound night. Taylor Rochestie was 1-of-8 and finished with two points, a season low.
“I thought the offense, again,” struggled, Bennett said, “not the quality of shots we got, but we needed to score some to stay in that game.”
Because the Tar Heels got their offense going, at least after halftime.
Buoyed by the spurt at the end of the first half, North Carolina continued to build the lead behind its transition game. It wasn’t just one Tar Heel doing the damage but a combination. It was Hansbrough for a while, Lawson for six consecutive points — he finished with 12 — and Wayne Ellington at other times — he had 13. Though only six NC players scored, four were in double figures.
“They just showed you how good and how dynamic they are,” Rochestie said. “You get back and you think you stop their great players, but each of their players had their own little time, a 3-4 minute period when they played well.
“You add all those together it’s a great game.”
And a trip to the Elite Eight.