The Washington State Cougars came back from a 12-point halftime deficit to take a second half lead, but as has been the case so often this year away from home, they faded down the stretch to lose to the Utah Utes, 76-64, on Saturday.
The Utes (12-7 overall, 3-4 Pac-12) used some generous officiating to mount a parade to the free throw line that really was a major difference in the game. Not only was WSU struggling with depth issues caused by foul trouble — CJ Elleby was most affected for WSU, with literally all of his first four fouls being extremely questionable, but Noah Williams also fouled out in six minutes — but Utah ended up with a whopping 19-5 advantage in free throws.
The Cougars (12-9, 3-5) didn’t even shoot their first attempts from the line until less than five minutes remained in the game.
That wasn’t the only problem for WSU, though: The Cougars’ interior defense, which was (rightly) focusing its energy on cutting off drives by Timmy Allen, routinely found itself in disadvantageous positions against Utah’s big men — Branden Carlson and Mikael Jantunen combined for 28 points on 11-of-13 shooting from the field (all twos) and 6-of-8 from the line. As a team, the Utes shot 69% from inside the arc, the second-highest mark allowed by the undersized Cougars this season.
“They’re pretty big and pretty good inside,” WSU coach Kyle Smith said. “We were playing with foul trouble and they just kept trying to go inside.”
The other player who terrorized them in the lane — although not really until the final stretch — was diminutive point guard Rylan Jones, who finished with 24 points. He scored 11 of those points in the final 5:33 of the game, including a trio of layups near the end of the shot clock in which the Cougars, gassed from their short bench playing at elevation, offered little resistance.
“He dominated the end of the game,” Smith said. “If we do a better job on him, maybe we get an opportunity to get it down to one possession and make something happen.”
The game flow of this loss bore a striking resemblance to Thursday’s loss to the Colorado Buffaloes.
WSU actually led by nine early in the game behind some hot shooting from beyond the arc; Jervae Robinson, who has shot under 30% for his career from long range, actually hit his first two, and Jaz Kunc hit another.
But, as often happens after a hot start on the road, the home team began to walk it back, as the Utes began to pound the ball inside, which coincided with Elleby’s foul trouble. WSU led by four with 6:47 to play in the first half after a fast break layup by Robinson, but from there, the whistles became relentless: Utah embarked on a 12-0 run that featured the Utes making 8-of-8 from the line to seize an eight-point lead while the Cougar offense endured what has become one of their signature cold streaks, fueled by turnovers (10 in the first half all together) and poor shooting.
Uta would stretch it to 12 at halftime as Carlson and Jantunen combined to score the Utes’ final 13 points. The 18-2 run to finish the half dropped WSU’s win probability all the way to just 10%, per kenpom.com. But as they have so often done this year, the Cougs refused to give up.
Elleby, who had zero shot attempts in the first half, drained a three to open the second half scoring. Following a Both Gach layup, WSU scored the next seven points, kicked off by another Elleby three and then followed by fast break buckets from Isaac Bonton and Robinson. Allen stopped the run with a jumper, but then Elleby hit another three, followed by a Bonton layup. Gach again tried to stop the bleeding, this time with (what else?) a free throw, but a Bonton 3 capped an 18-5 run that gave the Cougars a one-point lead with under 14 minutes to play.
Then ... another cold streak. Utah went on an 18-5 run of its own over the next six minutes — with only a Deron Henson 3 and Jeff Pollard layup making a dent, as Elleby and Bonton went silent — to extend the lead back to 12 with just under eight minutes to play, and it was more or less over for the shorthanded Cougars at that point, as they never got within two possessions for the remainder of the game.
Bonton led the team with 21 points and four assists in a team-high 37 minutes, while Robinson finished with 13. Elleby was the other double-figure scorer with 12.
WSU once again played without four players presumed to play important roles this season: Jaylen Shead, Marvin Cannon, Deion James, and Tony Miller. Cannon and Miller should return at some point, while Shead and James are done for the season.
With the loss, WSU is now 0-16 on the road against Utah and Colorado since those schools joined the Pac-12 in 2011.
WSU returns to action on Wednesday night against the Arizona State Sun Devils, who are fresh off a massive comeback rivalry win over the Arizona Wildcats. Tipoff is at 8 p.m. from Beasley Coliseum.