SACRAMENTO, Calif. – Desperate to do something after a long stint on the bench, Washington State’s Kyle Weaver told himself to read Yemi Ogunoye’s eyes.
Ogunoye made it easy – his inbounds pass went straight into Weaver’s hands.
The Cougars’ star stole the ball beneath the Oral Roberts basket and dunked to barely beat the halftime buzzer, and Washington State rode that momentum swing right into the second round of the NCAA tournament.
“I got a good one,” Weaver said, smiling in a businesslike locker room. “That was big-time for us, having that momentum.”
Reserve Ivory Clark scored 19 points and Weaver had 10 points, eight rebounds and four assists to help the third-seeded Cougars win their first NCAA game in 24 years with a 70-54 victory over 14th-seeded Oral Roberts on Thursday in the East Regional.
The Cougars will face sixth-seeded Vanderbilt in the second round Saturday after the Commodores defeated George Washington 77-44 in the second game Thursday at Arco Arena. It will be the first meeting between the schools.
Taylor Rochestie added 15 points, five rebounds and four assists, and connected for a key 3-pointer late as Washington State pulled away with 59 percent shooting and only one turnover in the second half. Clark provided a big boost off the bench by matching his career best with five blocks and pulling down six boards for the Cougars, whose special season will last at least another game.
They went from last place in the Pac-10 a year ago to second under first-year coach Tony Bennett. Fans chanted “Tony! Tony!” before the game, then Washington State (26-7) went out and won its first NCAA tournament game since George Raveling’s team beat Weber State 62-52 in 1983.
“We’re happy to be here, but we’re not going to stop at that,” guard Derrick Low said.
Ken Tutt scored 10 of his 19 points in the first half to lead Oral Roberts (23-11), the Mid-Continent Conference tournament champions who reached the NCAAs for the second straight season and fourth time overall. The Golden Eagles lost their opener for the second consecutive year.
The Cougars reached the tournament for the first time since current Indiana coach Kelvin Sampson led the school to the postseason in 1994 and a first-round loss to Boston College.
After a slow start with Weaver on the bench in foul trouble, the Cougars hit their final five shots of the first half and then their initial four after halftime to take control.
“That was such a critical time in the game,” Golden Eagles coach Scott Sutton said. “They dominated those areas.”
So much for those experts who called an Oral Roberts upset.
The Tulsa, Okla., school hasn’t won an NCAA game since beating Syracuse and Louisville in the first two rounds in 1974 – when their mascot was the Titans.
Both second-generation college coaches had their successful fathers in the stands to cheer them on: Dick Bennett and Sutton’s dad, Eddie.
Washington State did everything right in crunch time. The Cougars started the second half 9-for-11 and used an 18-4 run to build a 44-32 lead on Clark’s basket at 13:41.
They avoided becoming the second Pac-10 school eliminated on the first day after Stanford was routed 78-58 by Louisville in the South Regional in Lexington, Ky.
Bennett had to calm his players down a bit during the halftime break and reminded them of the importance of applying the basic fundamentals, such as blocking out and running the floor.
“They were fired up because they closed the gap, but I got after them about rebounding and transition defense,” said Bennett, the Pac-10 coach of the year whose name will surely come up as a candidate for openings at more high-profile programs. “Obviously, we got off to a slow start. I think when we start getting a handle on not giving them as many second shots and getting back on defense, we feel pretty good about it.”
Rochestie made a twisting layin with just under 5 seconds left in the first half. Then Weaver, the junior star who recorded the school’s first known triple-double in an overtime loss at Stanford on Jan. 13, made his powerful two-handed jam that sent Washington State into halftime down 28-26. The Cougars missed 10 straight shots during one first-half stretch after briefly taking their first lead, but finished well.
Weaver also had a pretty right-handed slam over an outstretched Marchello Vealy in the second half.
The Cougars matched a school record with their 26th victory, last accomplished by the 1941 team that finished as national runner-up (26-6).
A strong contingent made the trek from Pullman, Wash., to support the Cougars, tailgating in the parking lots outside the Sacramento Kings’ home court beforehand.
Weaver picked up two quick fouls and missed his first three shots after returning before making a putback with 3:34 left in the half that ended a more than 5-minute scoring drought for Washington State.
Oral Roberts center Shawn King blocked two shots in the initial 31/2 minutes and finished with three, but the Golden Eagles got only a quiet 13 points on 4-for-16 shooting, eight rebounds, four assists and two steals from leading scorer and three-time conference player of the year Caleb Green in his final college game.
“I really chalk it up as a bad night for me,” Green said. “I have had a few of those in my time. I wish we had another game so I could come back, but this was the last one.”
Washington State won the only other meeting, 98-50 on Dec. 10, 1993.