FULLERTON, Calif. — Sometimes new habits can be the best.
Washington State found itself down by nine points midway through the second half of their Wooden Legacy championship game against San Diego State on Sunday night and hardly blinked.
The unbeaten Cougars had trailed by 20 points in their opening tournament game against Saint Joseph’s and trailed again the next night against Saint Mary’s.
Washington State responded Sunday with a 25-9 run to take control and hold off the Aztecs for a 93-86 victory that earned the Cougars their first tournament title since 2009.
“People ask me about my great halftime speeches,” said Cougars coach Ernie Kent. “I don’t give half-time speeches. We make adjustments and this team goes out and executes them.”
The Cougars (6-0) were led by tournament MVP Malachi Flynn’s 22 points, six assists and five rebounds.
After missing his first two 3-point attempts, Flynn hit on six of his next nine. As a team, Washington State connected on 13-of-28 3-pointers.
“Washington State did what they do – hit from outside,” said San Diego State first-year coach Brian Dutcher.
The Aztecs (5-2) got 23 points from Devin Watson and a season-high 19 from Trey Kell, but their effort took a blow when leading scorer Malik Pope appeared to injure an ankle in the first half. He did not play in the second half.
The Aztecs still seemed poised to pull out the win when they went up 73-64 with 8:25 to play, but as the Cougars did throughout the tournament, they responded.
“We just needed to get back into our rhythm,” Kent said. “As soon as we did, here comes the points.”
The Cougars also got 22 points from Robert Franks — who left the game four 4 minutes left with his own ankle injury — and a career-high 16 points from Jeff Pollard.
It was a nice victory for a Cougars team picked to come in last in the Pac-12 Conference.
“It’s a huge statement, but we’re definitely not done yet,” Flynn said. “We can’t get all happy about it. It’s only six games into the season. We still have a lot to prove.”
San Diego could not turn a significant advantage inside into victory. The Aztecs outrebounded the Cougars 44-35 and outscored them in the paint 42-24.
San Diego State: The Aztecs suffered their first loss in six Wooden Legacy games. They won the tournament in 2013.
Washington State: The unbeaten Cougars were the surprise of the tournament. They are now 6-0 all-time against San Diego State.
The conference is now a perfect 5-0 in title games in this tournament with five different teams winning – Washington State, USC, Cal, Washington and UCLA.
San Diego State led 79-78 with four minutes to play when the Cougars scored the first seven points in an 11-3 run to take control.
The Cougars had not scored 93 points in a regulation game since a 93-55 win over Santa Clara on Dec. 11, 2011. . The Aztecs made just two of their final 11 shots.
San Diego State: Travels across town to play the University of San Diego on Thursday.
Washington State: Returns home to play UC Davis on Saturday.
More AP college basketball: http://collegebasketball.ap.org