The three-point line giveth, the three-point line taketh away.
For the game, the Cougars scored 1.14 points per possession, their best mark in a couple of weeks. But it hardly mattered on a night when the defense reverted back to its previous form, giving up 1.34 points per possession — the second most allowed all season.
The Cougars (11-16 overall, 4-10 Pac-12), who beat the Colorado Buffaloes by a bucket on Wednesday when the Buffs shot just 9-of-29 from three, went toe to toe with the Utes for a half, trailing by just two at the break despite Utah (15-12, 9-6) hitting 10-of-17 three pointers. That’s because the Cougars were just as hot themselves, making 8-of-12 from three, and the score was 45-43.
The Utes did a masterful job taking advantage of the Cougars’ man-to-man defense, which switches more than a typical man-to-man. That meant mismatches in the post, where Utah’s taller front line repeatedly had position on guards Ahmed Ali and Viont’e Daniels.
Once the Cougars shored that up, Utah used WSU’s switches on ball screens to match their talented point guard, Sedrick Barefield, with one of WSU’s bigs — usually Isaiah Wade, who was filling in as the primary center with Jeff Pollard on the bench with concussion symptoms. In what was a patently unfair matchup, Barefield devastated Wade on the perimeter, getting to the rim whenever he wanted.
But the Cougars had Robert Franks, and he scored 22 points himself, powered by 4-of-5 from three. Franks and Barefield combined to shoot 8-of-11 from three. It was a duel that was incredibly fun to watch, but one that was going to be decided by some second-half adjustments.
Unsurprisingly, the more effective moves came from Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak.
A big reason why the Cougars couldn’t keep up after the break was the disappearance of Franks. After halftime, Donnie Tillman turned into the Robostopper, suffocating Franks with tight man-to-man defense and holding him to just seven points. The Cougars also struggled to hit their threes, making just 4-of-14, but a bigger indictment is probably shooting 7-of-16 on twos.
WSU’s second half perimeter defense churned out some better results — the Utes shot just 6-of-18 from deep — but the Cougars gave up some offensive rebounds, with Utah punishing them virtually every time, and in addition to seven second-chance points, the Utes scored 12 points on the fast break. There simply were too many easy buckets on the interior, and when contrasted with WSU’s lack of substance on the interior, it tells the story of why the game turned out as it did.
Franks did finish with 29 points, 7 rebounds and 3 steals, but he was overshadowed by Barefield’s 33 points, 4 assists and 3 steals. Daniels, who stepped back into a crucial role with Pollard out and WSU going small most of the game, scored 13 points on the power of 3-of-4 shooting from deep.