PULLMAN, Wash. - One of the nation's toughest schedules may have helped the Arizona Wildcats win three previous Pac-10 road games and knock off first-place California last week.
But on Saturday night in a 78-60 loss at Washington State, only a troubling side effect was visible, especially to UA coach Sean Miller.
The Wildcats, who fell out of a first-place tie with the loss, were worn out. Whether because of physical or mental reasons or both, they clearly weren't the same team that had rebounded from every previous Pac-10 loss with a win.
Arizona has played 12 games away from McKale Center now, with five of its final seven to be played at home, and Miller can't wait to get home.
That "can take its toll on a great team and it can decimate a young team," Miller said. "Today, I felt a little bit of that for the first time. That fight that we've had I didn't necessarily see."
Instead of bouncing back this time after a hard-fought 81-75 loss at Washington on Thursday, the Wildcats were out-rebounded by 12 and allowed the Cougars to shoot 51 percent from the field.
And they also watched their old nemesis, center DeAngelo Casto, tear them apart with 19 points, nine rebounds and three blocks. It was Casto who hit a buzzer-beater in WSU's 78-76 win at McKale Center last month.
"We tried to keep him off the glass but he just killed us on rebounds," said UA center Derrick Williams, who had 16 points, seven rebounds and two blocks to lead the team in all three categories.
Just a sophomore, Casto established himself against Williams, a prime candidate for Pac-10 freshman of the year.
"My teammates were getting me the ball and I made the most of my opportunities, and went at him," Casto said.
But to hear both sides describe it, the game wasn't about individual matchups as much as it was about two collective hearts.
The Cougars had lost three straight games and the Wildcats were still in a tie for first place entering Saturday's game. It was obvious which team wanted it more.
"They just came out more aggressive than us with their back to the wall and not wanting to lose," UA guard Nic Wise said. "It was more them than us. They were more aggressive than us."
The loss dropped the Wildcats to 6-5 in Pac-10 play and 12-11 overall. It was the first time this season Arizona had lost both games of a Pac-10 weekend, while the Wildcats also were swept for the regular season by Washington State.
WSU improved to 15-8 and 5-6, giving itself a last chance at making a run for Pac-10 contention.
"That's the last thing we talked about before we left the locker room, that there needs to be a sense of urgency," WSU coach Ken Bone said. "I didn't bring it up because we had lost three in a row, but we needed to have a sense of urgency again and that goes back to we need to play to the best of our capabilities every possession."
Miller credited Bone for the difficult turnaround, both to him directly in the Friel Court hallway, and also in a media interview.
At the same time, Miller blamed himself, too.
"Sometimes you have to admit as a coach when you get outperformed," Miller said. "Washington State deserves a lot of credit. When you lose three games in a row, it's kind of that defining moment for a team and they really answered the bell. They were the more aggressive team. They were a bigger team, a more excited team and a stronger team.
"I thought we got outperformed, outcoached and outprepared."
The Wildcats had moments. They trailed by six at halftime and pulled to within five in the second half but were never able to get closer, a block or bucket from Casto, or a score from one of the Cougars' other three double-digit scorers never far away.
UA pulled to within 62-56 with 5:03 left, but the Cougars pulled away easily in the final two minutes.
"We just wanted to get stops," Williams said. "We couldn't get the key stops we needed."
With seven minutes to go, Arizona's Kyle Fogg was called for an intentional foul on WSU's Klay Thompson - and the Cougars made a three-point swing out of it that helped keep the momentum firmly in their favor.
Thompson made only the second of his two free throws, but Casto made a hook shot on the ensuing possession to give the Cougars a 60-47 lead.
The Cougars kept the Wildcats scoreless for the first 2:38 of the second half, expanding their halftime lead to 39-26, while UA missed its four shots, including a short jumper by Williams that Casto swatted away.
UA ran off eight straight points, however, to cut it to 40-35 with 15:05 left, getting a driving layup from Fogg, a layup from Williams and a three-pointer from Wise.
But the Wildcats could get no closer the rest of the way and now they'll have to rely on having five home games in their final seven to make a push for conference-title and postseason contention.
"Hopefully we can finish strong," Miller said. "It's not going to be easy, but I like the fact that we finish at McKale and can kind of take a break from doing this."
On StarNet: Follow the Cats on Bruce Pascoe's blog at go.azstarnet.com/pascoe
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