CJ Elleby drained a 3-pointer with 5.4 seconds left to give the Washington State Cougars a two-point lead over the Arizona State Sun Devils, whose subsequent turnover sealed a 67-65 victory for the Cougs.
Elleby tied a career high with 27 points, but the irony is that it was a pair of missed free throws by Elleby at the front end of a pair of 1-and-1s that put the Cougars (13-9 overall, 4-5 Pac-12) in position to need the pressure-packed shot in the first place.
WSU led the game by 15 early in the second half after coming out blistering from the locker room — the Cougars hit a trio of threes in an 11-2 run. But as is usual for this team, they had a cold streak: ASU responded with an 18-3 over 4:21 to pull even.
But then the Cougs answered right back, as Isaac Bonton responded with six points in an 11-2 run that put WSU back up by nine, 62-53, with just under eight minutes to go.
And then they went cold again: As WSU suffered through a stretch of missed shots and turnovers, ASU went on an 11-0 run over the next five-plus minutes to seize a two-point lead after back-to-back layups by Jalen Graham. Mixed in there were those missed free throws from Elleby.
But Elleby would respond to make the two biggest shots of the game.
First, following a missed shot by Noah Williams that ASU tapped out of bounds, Elleby hit a jumper to tie the game at 64 with under a minute to play. On the ensuing possession, Jervae Robinson — who had done a masterful job on ASU’s star, Remy Martin, all night — got caught being a little handsy, and Martin went to the free throw line for a 1-and-1.
Only, somehow, Martin — who had been shooting just under 75% from the free throw line — missed the front end. But ASU got supremely lucky when WSU’s attempt to chase down the rebound somehow made its way into the hands of Graham, who absorbed a foul from Williams. But he could hit just one of the free throws.
That set up the heroics from Elleby, who found himself isolated at the top of the key, jab stepped, then stepped back, and ...
“Isaac asked what to run,” WSU head coach Kyle Smith said, “and I said, ‘Give it to CJ.’ ”
“He’s clutch,” Bonton said. “Ice in his veins.”
In the battle between two of the best players in the Pac-12, Elleby was the undisputed winner. He finished with 27 points, 12 rebounds, three assists and two blocks. Martin, meanwhile, scored just 12 points on 15 shots with five rebounds, two assists and five turnovers. It was the first time Martin had been held under 20 points since a loss to Creighton five weeks ago.
It was those five turnovers that were truly indicative of how the Cougars won this game: They took the ball away from ASU 21 times, the sixth time this season they have forced 20 or more turnovers. It helped WSU hold the Sun Devils down to just 0.86 points per possession — the fourth-lowest output of the season for ASU.
Bonton was the only other WSU player in double figures, scoring 12 points on 14 shots as WSU gave the ball away an uncharacteristic 19 times themselves.
The Cougars are back in action again on Saturday against the Arizona Wildcats. Tipoff is at 5 p.m. PT from Beasley Coliseum.