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WSU vs. UW basketball: Cougs rally to beat Huskies in Seattle, 79-74

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Malachi Flynn outduels Markelle Fultz down the stretch to lead WSU to victory.

NCAA Basketball: Washington State at Washington
Malachi Flynn made all the winning plays down the stretch for WSU.
Jennifer Buchanan-USA TODAY Sports

Rallying from a 13-point first half deficit, the WSU Cougars started the New Year and their Pac-12 season on the right foot Sunday night when they went into Washington’s building and came away with an upset victory, 79-74.

WSU moved to 8-5 overall and 1-0 in Pac-12 play, while the Huskies fell to 7-6 and 0-1.

The Cougs hadn’t given fans much to be excited about this season after a nonconference slate that featured losses to Loyola Chicago, San Jose State and New Orleans, so it would be understandable if you didn’t make it a priority to find the game on ESPNU tonight.

If you didn’t, you really missed out on a heck of a game in which the Cougs displayed incredible guts, discipline and poise to deal the Huskies yet another setback in a season that has turned hard against Lorenzo Romar.

We mentioned before the game that Washington had a great offense, and the Huskies set out to prove that correct. Following a back-and-forth initial six minutes in which both teams were putting the ball in the basket with regularity, the Huskies took control with a 20-6 run over the next eight minutes to take a 33-20 lead with just under six minutes to go in the half.

It sort of felt like, OK, this is how the game was supposed to go — the Cougs would score some points against UW’s porous defense, but eventually WSU would have a hard time keeping up with UW’s Markelle Fultz-led attack and progressively fall further and further behind in a hostile environment.

NCAA Basketball: Washington State at Washington
Markelle Fultz finished with 26 points, but he had to work awfully hard to get them.
Jennifer Buchanan-USA TODAY Sports

The Cougs, though, were able to stem the tide and eventually reduce the deficit to seven at the half, something that was a huge victory considering how close it felt like the wheels were to completely falling off.

It was in the second half that WSU improbably took control of the game. The Cougs opened the half with a blistering 14-0 run over the first three minutes in which Ike Iroegbu hit four free throws, Conor Clifford made a couple of shots in the paint, and Charles Callison and Malachi Flynn each hit 3-pointers as WSU opened up a seven-point lead.

Perhaps most impressive is how they held the Huskies at bay during that run. WSU has shown the ability to play stingy defense at times, and this was one of those times, as they harassed the Huskies into difficult shots and then controlled the glass — for the game, the Huskies rebounded just 33 percent of their own misses, well below their season mark of 38 percent.

UW wasn’t going to leave quietly, though — not with Fultz doing what he does. With the Cougs leading by seven with just under 10 minutes to play following a Viont’e Daniels steal and layup (in which he was criminally robbed of his and-one free throw), Fultz went on a tear, scoring 12 of Washington’s final 21 points while chipping in a couple of rebounds and an assist over that span.

All told the superfrosh — who will almost certainly be one of the first two or three picks in the upcoming NBA draft — had 26 points, 11 assists and 9 rebounds. Had he been able to grab one more board, he would have finished with the first triple-double in UW history.

However, his gaudy statistical night was overshadowed by another true freshman who made all the winning plays down the stretch. After a 3-pointer by Fultz put Washington ahead by four with 2:34 to play, the Cougars — whose grip on the game seemed to be slipping away — turned to their own newcomer to lead them to victory: Malachi Flynn.

Over the next five possessions, Flynn would blow past his defender four times. Three of those resulted in layups; the fourth was a gorgeous no-look pass to Robert Franks in the paint that was blocked out of bounds by Fultz. (The Cougars would score on a pretty inbounds play from Flynn to Iroegbu, who curled to find Hawkinson under the basket for an easy bucket.)

In that same stretch, the Cougars limited Washington to just one basket — a 3-pointer by David Crisp with just three seconds left when the Huskies were trailing by six.

Flynn finished with 16 points, 6 assists, 3 rebounds and zero turnovers while controlling the game for the Cougs from the point guard spot for 38 minutes.

“I've often talked about Malachi, and I've compared him to Luke Ridnour and Aaron Brooks,” Ernie Kent said after the game. (Find a complete transcription of Kent’s postgame comments, via Jacob Thorpe, here.) “I don't know if Brooks could have played like this in his freshman year. He did his senior year. But for a freshman to come back home, in this environment, and have the poise – not only want the ball but have the poise to make the plays consistently, that shows you his potential greatness down the road.”

It was no accident that the ball was in his hands down the stretch.

“He knows when I call his number what he's supposed to do,” Kent said. “And those are the exact same plays we ran for Ridnour and Brooks down the stretch. Those high ball-screens, three screens, two screens. He just picks and chooses the mismatch and takes off. I thought he was exceptional down the stretch and just having poise. Knowing when to go and knowing when to slow.”

Here are some highlights if you didn’t get to see it; the hesitation dribble on the pick-and-roll at 0:25 is especially impressive:

Hawkinson supplied most of the rest of the scoring punch, pouring in 26 points on 10-of-18 shooting with 8 rebounds. Clifford dropped in 14 points as a force in the paint, while Callison scored 9 points with 5 assists.

For what it’s worth, those numbers don’t really do justice to Callison’s contribution in the second half. He drew the primary defensive assignment on Fultz, and while Fultz had 26 points, he also shot just 11-of-26 and was ineffective in the final few minutes. He also had some key baskets and a couple of really nice passes for assists. He’ll go down as my unsung hero in the game.

This is a huge win for the Cougs. I don’t know what it means going forward, as Washington is not a very good team with its own host of issues. It could be that this is the high water mark, a la last January’s win over UCLA — the final win before a 17-game losing streak to end the season. I’d like to think not.

But either way, this game supplied a much needed injection of fun into this season, and with Oregon State up next on Wednesday, the prospect of a 2-0 start to Pac-12 play is very real.