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February 1, 2013

Washington State learned to know the name Wildcats

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Pullman, Wash. is something of a historic epicenter for Arizona basketball. The program's first No. 1 ranking, reached in January 1988, was announced when the Wildcats arrived on the Palouse.

On that season's retrospective documentary "Memories," Steve Kerr relayed a story of opening the nearby Lewiston, Idaho newspaper to read a headline proclaiming the "Arizona Sun Devils" were the Associated Press No. 1.

UA exorcised its frustrations on Washington State that night, 89-55, and there's little doubt the name Wildcats was remembered in that part of the country from then on. UA continued to hammer it home for several years.

That win in 1988 was the fourth win in what would become a legendary streak of 37 consecutive, spanning almost three decades for the Wildcats against the Cougars.

Friel Court at Beasley Coliseum hosted half of UA's wins during that run. A longstanding joke among Wildcat faithful is that Arizona State's Wells Fargo Arena is Tucson North - if that's the case, Friel Court was Tucson Extreme North from 1987 through 2006, when UA won every time it stepped foot on the Pullman hardwood.

Recent seasons and Tony Bennett coming to the Palouse changed the dynamic. Since snapping the losing skid on its home floor in 2007, WSU actually won a stretch of three of four at Friel Court.

But UA comes in winners of the last two games in Pullman; WSU has dropped three of its last four at home, overall - including a 63-59 decision on Thursday night to ASU.

With the Wildcats coming off a 57-53 win that actually snapped its own losing streak - a six-year slump at Washington's Alaska Airlines Arena - momentum would seemingly favor UA.

Yet, there are challenges inherent with making the trek to the Palouse. Pullman is as off-the-grid a destination as there is in the conference.

UA is going from Seattle to Spokane, which is about a 90-minute bus ride from Pullman. In years past, the Wildcats went to Moscow, Idaho, about 30 minutes east of WSU.

"The coaching staff has changed the trip from what we did our first year," Solomon Hill told reporters this week. "It's a little different to not shoot around in [Friel Court] the day prior to the game, but the Gonzaga set up is pretty great for us.

"We make the most of it. I like the direction the coaching staff has gone with it."

Spokane has proven to be friendlier than Moscow, with UA winning since shaking up the itinerary after a loss at WSU in 2010. Either way though, the Seattle-to-Pullman trek is the least commuter friendly of any road swing in the league.

Overcoming its road weariness is critical for UA - particularly, how vexing starts have been for the Wildcats in conference play.

The Wildcats have trailed at halftime in four of eight Pac-12 games, including Thursday's win at UW. The Huskies went ahead by double digits early, taking advantage of 12 first-half turnovers.

"[Coach Sean Miller] was mad," Hill said in reference to turnovers, during his postgame press conference on Thursday. "Any coach would be furious in that situation because take away 12 turnovers and the game would have been so much different. And it's a factor of us. You could say they're going out there and making us turn the ball over, but we're passing the ball into deflections, we're losing it on drives."

WSU hasn't been particularly effective in forcing turnovers. One of the key deviations since Ken Bone replaced Bennett is the current Cougars are not the same defensively aggressive bunch. This season, they rank No. 253 in turnovers forced at 12.5 per game.

However, UW was not much better at around 12.7 coming into Thursday's tilt.

The Wildcats who showed up in the second half and turned the ball over just five times need to appear from the outset at WSU.

"Just focus," Nick Johnson said of the difference in Thursday's second half. "We knew that by turning the ball over we were missing out on a lot of shots that could be taken. So you just have to focus in and make plays."

Kyle KensingKyle Kensing
GOAZCATS.com Staff Writer

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