USC made it interesting, but WSU did just enough down the stretch to pick up its sixth Pac-12 victory of the season, a 70-66 decision over the struggling Trojans.
For once, it appeared the Cougars might end up on the right side of a game that didn't have a lot of drama. Of course, that's very difficult to pull off when your team is terrible at preventing scoring, and for as bad as the Trojans have been on offense this year, even they could muster enough scoring in the second half to make the game feel in doubt.
The Cougars steadily stretched the lead out to 15 points late in the first half before USC closed the gap to 10 on a 3 at the buzzer, then worked the lead all the way up to 19 when Jordan Railey hit a free throw with 11:35 to go.
But things are never that simple for the Cougs.
USC used a 20-6 run over the next six minutes to close to within five points with 5:20 to go, and it was game on from there.
In the end, the outcome was secured by an unlikely hero: Junior Longrus.
After USC had closed to 64-61 on a 3-pointer by Malik Marquetti with 3:23 to play, the Cougs game down trying to hold the Trojans at bay. DaVonte Lacy drove into the lane searching for a foul -- a solid strategy, considering #pac12refs called 30(!!!) fouls in the second half -- but was unable to find one and his left-handed layup rimmed out. Longrus sneaked his way in between a pair of Trojans to get his left hand on the ball and tip it up and in and extend the lead back out to five.
The next few possessions were pretty ugly on both ends -- first a turnover by Kaitin Reinhardt, then a blocked layup by Dexter Kernich-Drew, then a missed jumper by Reinhardt. But an offensive rebound by Nikola Jovanovic gave Reinhardt another chance, and he made good the second time to again close to within three.
After Lacy missed yet another three early in the shot clock -- it was wide open, but the miss made him 1-of-7 for the night, and it was officially butt pucker time for the Cougs. Fortunately, Reinhardt missed another shot. Unfortunately, Ike Iroegbu missed his own shot (part of a miserable night for WSU's point guards) and USC had another chance to pull within one or tie.
This time, Andy Enfield went away from Reinhardt to Julian Jacobs, who was being guarded by Longrus. Using his length, Longrus bothered the 6-foot-4 Jacobs into a tough shot, then secured the rebound before being promptly fouled with 18 seconds left.
Nope. Longrus, who had hit only 8 of 20 free throws this season, coolly hit the first one to get the margin to four. The next free throw looked like what we've come to expect, bricking hard off the rim to Longrus' right ... but Junior beat a bunch of Trojans to the ball for an offensive rebound, his fourth of the game. Two Iroegbu free throws later, the game was on ice.
Well, sort of. WSU's ill-fated full-court press left Reinhardt wide open for a 3, which of course he nailed to get the Trojans back within one possession with nine seconds to go. But Josh Hawkinson hit one of his two free throws to put the game out of reach and provide the final margin, 70-66.
The game certainly wasn't a work of art; a game that featured 11 fouls and five free throws in the first half finished with 41 fouls and 48 free throws, turning the contest into a game of who could draw more fouls around the basket and then hit their freebies. (For the second game in a row.) Between that and the poor shooting -- even with all the free throws, both teams finished under 1.0 points per possession -- the contest was borderline unwatchable for long stretches. (For the second game in a row.)
Got a nice eye-roll out of Kent when asked about difference between officiating in first/second halves.— Jacob Thorpe (@JacobThorpeSR) February 26, 2015
A big part of the Cougs' struggles on the offensive end came about because of decidedly substandard play from their point guards. Iroegbu and Ny Redding combined for 3 points, 5 assists and 5 turnovers -- again, combined -- in 43 minutes.
But there were huge positives, too.
The Cougars' defense has been horrible all season, and after letting USC get back into the game, it looked like it might become their undoing for the second consecutive game. But after that 3 by Marquetti, WSU earned stops on four of the final six possessions to finish the win.
Additionally, Lacy struggled mightily, needing 15 shots to score his 17 points, but this team is showing an increasing ability to be successful even when he's off his game a bit -- something that didn't seem possible early in the season. Tonight, it was Kernich-Drew coming to the rescue again, as he scored 19 points on 7-of-11 shooting -- including 4-of-5 from 3-point range. He didn't score any points in the final 16 minutes, but his 15 first-half points were a huge part of the Cougs building the lead that USC never could overcome; while it felt like USC threatened late, the Trojans actually never led.
Despite another poor shooting night from the floor, Josh Hawkinson picked up yet another double-double (his 17th of the season) with 11 points and 13 rebounds. And, of course, Longrus was huge: 5 points, 6 rebounds, 2 blocks and 1 assist in 21 really good minutes.
In an unusual move, the Cougars fly back to Pullman before flying back down to Los Angeles to take on UCLA on Sunday. The game tips off at 6:30 p.m. on Fox Sports 1.