By Ken Cross
In case you weren’t with us at 2 a.m. EST this morning, the Washington State Cougars further intensified their arrival in Ernie Kent’s fourth year in the Palouse with a 93-86 finish in the championship game over Mountain West contender San Diego State. Malachi Flynn once again led all scorers Sunday evening with 24 in the championship game. He averaged 19.7 points per game in the three game stretch and was named to the all-tournament team and tournament MVP.
“They fought hard and they had us down nine and I thought they played a tremendous game and forced us to grow up during the course of the tournament and during the course of the game,” said Kent, “It’s our basketball program’s first championship I think in eight years and this is my fourth year here so this is a long time coming and I’m happy for these guys.”
Flynn may have been an unknown on the national scene, but in this tournament, he certainly joined the Cougars in announcing their arrival as he hit a game-winning jumper for the Cougars in a 75-71 win over Saint Joseph’s in the opening round and the led the Cougars with 26 in their semifinal win over No. 21 Saint Mary’s.
“I was just not thinking as much, just going out there and playing,” Flynn commented after struggling in the first half in the win over the Hawks, “Just sitting back watching that first game and how everything was going on and coming back and staying ready, knowing that my coach is going to come back to me.”
Robert Franks was a major factor as well as he scored 22 points for his third 20-plus point game of the season as he left with an ankle injury with 12:32 remaining, but returned and provided consistent play down the stretch. It was the first time this season Washington State had two 20-plus scorers in taking the Cougars to their first 6-0 start since 2009-10.
When I saw him get up and limp off, I was hoping he would be back and I think it was at that point in time that Malachi stepped up and really took control of the game,” explained Kent, “To get that tap on your shoulder a couple minutes later saying ‘coach I’m ready to go,’ it was really good because that’s a turning moment for him.”
The Cougars showed their ability to handle different challenges which led to growth in the tournament. They came from 20-points down on Thursday to knock off Saint Joesph’s and then the scripts were switched on Friday when they led by 16 with around eight minuets to go and thwarted a fierce Gaels’ rally which saw Saint Mary’s hit a 12-4 run and cut the Cougars’ lead to 80-77 with 48 seconds remaining. Robert Franks and Jeff Pollard stepped up with a pair of layups to seal the win.
”We continue to grow up a little bit with each challenge,” Kent said. ”We’re already better than when we got on the plane to come here. The bigger the challenge, the bigger the stage, the more they rise up.”
After making such a statement with the three-game run in Orange County, Kent realized the Cougars were the 12th pick in the league as the season started. he had no problem with that as he noted how the program had changed since last season.
“We lost four starters, they should have picked us last when you look at the productivity that left our program but we knew what our redshirts looked like, our summer, our weight program, the growth – It was just a matter of gaining confidence in game time,” said Kent.