COURTESY WASHINGTON STATE UNIVERSITY
Derrick Low, who left a lasting legacy at Iolani and with Hawaii high school basketball, hopes to lead Washington State to new heights in the NCAA Tournament.
Highs aplenty at WSU for Low
THE legacy Derrick Low leaves on the game of basketball will be about much more than numbers.
The former Iolani standout and current Washington State senior finds himself reminiscing about his illustrious career as he prepares for his final college home game tomorrow, against in-state rival Washington.
"I've been looking back at all the things I've went through recently," Low said in a phone interview this week. "At the time, things seemed kind of slow, but now it has gone by so fast."
The magical part about Low isn't the countless clutch shots he's made, assists handed out or awards received.
Low's game -- even going back to high school, where he dominated whenever he wanted -- has always been more about intangibles.
» School: Washington State
» Class: Senior
» Position: Guard
» Height: 6-2
» High school: Iolani ('04)
» Highlights: 2007 first-team All-Pac-10; three-time Star-Bulletin high school player of the year; four-time first-team all-state selection; three-time Gatorade Hawaii player of the year
IOLANI was by no means a poor basketball school when Low first took the floor as a highly touted freshman. The Raiders had won three state titles, including two under coach Mark Mugiishi in the 1990s, and had made it to the final five times.
But that was nothing compared to the success Low guided the Raiders to in his four years. Iolani won the first three of a record five straight state titles with Low running the show at guard. His Iolani teams went 101-4 against other Hawaii high schools.
He had turned Iolani from a good basketball program into a legendary one among high schools in Hawaii. But it was nothing compared to the turnaround job that awaited him in college.
"IT was pretty much a scattered crowd," Low recalled of his first home games at Friel Court in Pullman, Wash. "It was usually about half full."
Low took many people aback when the most decorated high school basketball player in Hawaii state history committed to Washington State.
Washington State? A team that hadn't finished better than sixth in the Pac-10 in the previous eight seasons? A team that was 77-150 over that span?
"People were surprised for sure," Low said of his choice. "But the Bennetts (former coach Dick and current coach Tony, Dick's son) sold me on the idea that I could be a part of turning the program around. It was something I wanted to do."
A fractured foot forced Low to miss the first five games of his freshman season. He found himself sitting on the bench at the end of his first road trip when the Cougars faced Oklahoma State.
The Cowboys were ranked sixth at the time and wound up burying Washington State 81-29.
"To make matters worse, all the fans were chanting 'thanks for practice' over and over," Low said. "We just put our heads down and got off the court as fast as possible. That's how far down we were."
LOW was the first high school recruit for the Cougars under Dick Bennett, a coach of more than 35 years who had resurrected programs at Wisconsin-Green Bay and Wisconsin. The elder Bennett instilled a hard-nosed defensive approach to the game that translated to success.
Washington State slowly started to improve, but the results didn't come until Dick's son, Tony, took over the team prior to Low's junior season. The Cougars were 7-1 heading into a showdown with nationally ranked Gonzaga. In front of a sold-out home crowd, Washington State won by 10, and Low said that was when the atmosphere around Cougars basketball changed.
"That was the ultimate test for us to see how good we were," Low said. "When we won, the fans rushed the court and it was really crazy. Once we proved to ourselves we could beat a good team, we just took off."
WASHINGTON State finished 26-8 and advanced to the second round of the NCAA Tournament before losing a heartbreaker to Vanderbilt in double overtime. A year later, the Cougars have been ranked for most of the season and are poised for a second consecutive NCAA appearance.
The once-half-empty stands at Friel Court are now packed for every game. Tomorrow night will be no different as the Cougars give thanks to the original recruiting class that began one of the most incredible turnarounds in school history.
From laughingstocks to the top kids on the block, Washington State is now the best basketball school in the state.
Washington was a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament when Low was a freshman. When the Huskies come to town tomorrow, they bring with them a five-game losing streak against the Cougars.
"It's like Iolani and Punahou back home," Low said of the Apple Cup rivalry. "I wouldn't want my last game to be against anyone else."
Low's future will unfold in the coming months, as he hopes to one day fulfill his dream of playing in the NBA. None of that matters now as he spends the last month of his college career focused on taking the Cougars to heights they have yet to see.
Looking at the Cougars now, it's impossible to imagine that two years ago, they finished 11-17 and last in the Pac-10.
Washington State bids aloha to its favorite Hawaiian son tomorrow night. Low has no idea how he will handle his emotions, but he does know he has accomplished the one goal he originally set out to do.
"I wanted to turn this program around and it has kind of become a reality now," Low said. "To think that I've had a hand in doing that is pretty neat."