The WSU Cougars flirted with disaster throughout most of the night but did just enough to outlast the Idaho Vandals in the Battle of the Palouse, 61-58.
The Cougs move to 4-0 on the season, while the Vandals drop to 0-3, and it very nearly went the other direction.
Fueled by a mixture of turnovers and horrendous shooting, yet another slow start led to the Cougars facing a deficit of 11 points late in the first half. Shooting 3-of-13 on 2s and giving the ball away 9 times, WSU trailed by 6 points at the break — the fourth consecutive game in which they were behind at halftime.
Things didn’t immediately get better; the first five minutes featured more turnovers and more missed layups and the Cougs fell behind by 9 with just about 15 minutes to go. At one point early in the second half, WSU had turned the ball over on one of every three possessions. It felt like they could have a chance if they could just stop giving the ball away, since the defense was doing its usual thing.
They finally did, embarking on a 19-0 run over six minutes that saw them surge to a 10-point lead with 9:19 to play behind 8 points from Andrej Jakimovski and 6 points from Noah Williams — a run that featured just one turnover and a quartet of layups. After trading some baskets, the lead was 12 for WSU with 4:23 to play, and it appeared that, after all the poor play that led up to it, that the Cougars would cruise against a team that should have provided little resistance.
Idaho had other ideas. Trailing by 9 with 2:51 remaining, DeAndre Robinson drained a contested 3 to pull within 6, which WSU followed up with a turnover by Ryan Rapp. Then, Damen Thacker hit a contested 3 to get to within 3, which WSU followed up with a missed layup by Jakimovski. Idaho missed on the ensuing possession, but an obvious blown call on a tap out of bounds by Idaho (that somehow wasn’t overturned by replay) gave the Vandals another chance, which they cashed in with yet another contested jumper made by Thacker.
With less than a minute to go, and Idaho on a 13-2 run, WSU was suddenly clinging to a one-point lead.
But Isaac Bonton came up big, hitting one of his patented step-back, mid-range jumpers to push the margin back to three. After an Idaho dunk moved it back to one 10 seconds to play, the Vandals were forced to foul Williams.
Williams did what he’s done multiple times in his short career: Drain both pressure-packed free throws — for his 18th and 19th points of the night, a team high — to back Idaho into a corner once again. The Vandals tried for the quick two, but missed, and Jakimovski secured the rebound, and the win.
“It would be great to win a game by double digits, but at the end of the day basketball is basketball, so I can’t be mad at it,” Williams said after the game. “I love it. I love playing crunch-time minutes, I love being in the heat of the moment. I love that, so I have no emotions when it comes down to crunch time, I just play. Just lace my shoes up and go play.”
Williams added 4 rebounds, 4 assists, 2 blocks and a steal, while Bonton scored 17 with a team-high 8 rebounds, 2 assists and 2 steals. Vova Markovetskyy also played 17 big minutes, seeing most of the action at center down the stretch, compiling 3 points, 4 rebounds and 3 blocks.
It wasn’t a work of art — this is a team the Cougars should have easily handled, and the fact that they didn’t handle them easily is probably a little bit telling. This team has now been at or above a 22% turnover rate in three of its four games, which is sabotaging the offense as much as any of its shot selection issues. But a win is a win, right?
First star: Noah Williams
OK, we’re getting to a point where it’s starting to look like Williams is turning into a star right before our eyes. He’s shooting efficiently, and while the 3-point shooting is unsustainable at the current rate — he’s not going to keep up a 55% clip — it’s clear his stroke is improved and we can expect respectable shooting from distance going forward. Add in his 81% free throw shooting on 16 attempts, and he’s got the look of a legit offensive contributor, independent of all the other things he does to contribute to victories.
Another way he’s improved? You might remember that he seemed to have a certain ... reputation ... with Pac-12 refs last season, getting called for more than five fouls per 40 minutes. This year, that’s down to 1.9 — and he isn’t any less disruptive on defense.
He still needs to finish a little bit better around the rim and needs to dial back the turnovers a little, but he’s improved a whole lot and it’s very exciting.
Second star: Bonton’s step-back jumper
Isaac Bonton, for some reason, is very bad at making 2s around the rim — he now has made just 21% of those on the season, according to hoop-math.com, a number so low it almost defies belief, and it went down after Wednesday night’s performance.
I suspect that some of it is mental at this point, given that a couple of Wednesday’s misses were wide open, but he also doesn’t do a great job of staying on balance, creating space, or drawing contact — he too often gets too deep with nowhere to go.
But you know what he is good at? Creating space on a step-back, midrange jumper and sticking it. When his feet are right, he’s deadly, and tonight he was on that game, particularly in the second half. It’s not a shot that analytics love, and he’s only made 38% of them this season; but for him, shooting that shot is a higher-percentage look than shots at the rim.
And who knows? If he hits enough of them, it might just loosen up the defense to make the shots at the rim a little easier.
Third star: Ryan Rapp’s +/-
The sophomore from Australia scored zero points, but he did play great defense during WSU’s 19-0 run, leading to him being a team-high plus-13. Plus/minus is obviously a very noisy stat, but when the team plays very well during the 25 minutes you’re on the floor, that’s a feather in your cap.
Good on ya, mate!