WSU gave the No. 13 Utah Utes all they could handle, but some hot shooting from the visitors allowed them to survive the upset bid and secure a 67-59 victory that was tougher than the final score would indicate.
Tied at 23 at the half in a game marked by some fairly ugly offense, the Cougars went toe-to-toe with the team that blew them out earlier in the year at Salt Lake City and actually led the Utes by eight with 12 minutes to go when DaVonte Lacy hit a three-pointer. WSU still led by seven three minutes later after Ike Iroegbu split a pair of free throws.
It was all downhill from there, thanks to some incredible shooting from the Utes and some self-inflicted wounds from the Cougs.
Utah's in line for a 3 or 4 seed in the upcoming NCAA tournament, and the Utes showed why tonight. Dallin Bachynski hit a free throw to draw the Utes within six, and after Iroegbu missed a pair of free throws and the Cougs turned the ball over on an illegal screen from Jordan Railey, Utah seized its opportunity: Back-to-back threes from Jordan Loveridge and Brandon Taylor erased the Cougars' lead, and it would be a sprint to the finish over the final six and a half minutes.
To nobody's surprise, Utah had the stronger kick. But the clinical manner in which the Utes separated from the Cougars had to surprise even themselves: Starting with those threes, Utah scored 17 points on seven consecutive possessions to turn a six-point deficit with 7:04 to go into a six-point lead with 2:21 remaining.
Of course, Utah needed a little help from WSU, and the Cougars could only muster a pair of Josh Hawkinson layups over that stretch as the Utes' defense showed why it's rated the fifth best in the nation in adjusted defensive efficiency. Lacy couldn't get his hands on the ball, and the Cougs were summarily harassed into difficult shots and turnovers.
In all, the Utes shot 11-for-20 in the second half, including 8-of-12 from three-point range and 14-of-18 from the free throw line. It was a spectacularly efficient performance -- 1.42 points per possession -- that showed the difference between a team headed for a top-four seed in the NCAA tournament and a team that will be trying to beg its way into the CBI. The Cougs scored 1.20 points per possession ... and it still wasn't enough.
Because of that, I find it difficult to get too bummed out about the result. There was a lot to like again: Iroegbu's aggressiveness to the rim (which included 7 assists against just 1 turnover), big contributions from Junior Longrus, only seven turnovers committed, and a defense that looked pretty decent for long stretches. Had the Cougs pulled it off, it would have been the crown jewel of Ernie Kent's first season. But the fact that they traded punches as long as they did with a team that blew them out six weeks ago still represents progress, and as much as we all hate moral victories, this season is still mostly about growth.
Lacy led the way with 16 points, although five of them game in the final moments when the game was out of reach. Jordan Railey contributed 12 points, all of them in the first half as he pretty much singlehandedly got all of Utah's front line in foul trouble, a major factor in the Cougars giving Utah a run. Josh Hawkinson narrowly missed another double-double with 11 points and 9 rebounds.
The Cougs will be back in action again on Saturday against eminently beatable Colorado. Tipoff is scheduled for 3:30 p.m. PT on Pac-12 Networks.