The Washington State Cougars held a six-point lead early in the second half at the McKale Center against the Arizona Wildcats, but a 26-0 run by the home team turned it into a laugher as Arizona avoided embarrassment and bolstered its NCAA tournament resume with an 83-62 victory.
WSU dropped to 15-15 and 6-11 in the Pac-12.
The Cougars entered the game shorthanded, as starting center Jeff Pollard sat out with a hand injury. Kyle Smith elected to go with an exceptionally small lineup, starting 6-foot-6/210-pound Tony Miller in the middle against Arizona’s future lottery pick, 6-11/240 Zeke Nnaji. That was a disaster from the beginning, as the Wildcats surged out to a 9-0 lead out of the gate behind offensive rebounding and interior scoring.
Kyle Smith immediately went to 7-foot-1 freshman Volodymyr Markovetskyy to inject some size, and it worked — despite ineffectiveness and foul trouble from leading scorer CJ Elleby, the Cougars slowly creeped back into the game, closing to within one point a couple of different times. They eventually erased the deficit with a 9-2 run to end of the first half that gave WSU an improbable two-point lead heading into the locker room — 31-29.
With Elleby struggling, it was a balanced attack for WSU: Isaac Bonton led the way with nine points, Jervae Robinson added eight, and Noah Williams and Tony Williams each chipped in four points.
More importantly, the Cougs held Arizona to just 0.81 points per possession in the opening period, forcing turnovers and mostly limiting the Wildcats to one shot.
Things looked even better early in the second half when the Cougs extended the lead to six points in the first 90 seconds — Elleby drained a 3 on the first possession, then an aggressive Bonton hit a jumper and a pair of free throws.
Then it all went south.
Nico Mannion, the top-15 recruit who will be a lottery pick this summer, scored the next eight points and would score 13 points total in the course of a 26-0 run that covered nearly seven minutes as everything fell apart for WSU. Elleby and Bonton seemed to run out of ideas, forcing shots and passes, while the defense just started to lose its will to defend.
Facing a 20-point deficit, the game was more or less over with just under 12 minutes to go. Arizona would finish at 1.11 points per possession — a remarkable achievement considering the paltry first half.
The game was not without its bright spots: Markovetskyy was a gamer, even as he was called upon to do much more than normal — he didn’t score, but he did have six rebounds and two assists while doing what he does bast on defense: Be big.
WSU will be back in action on Saturday against Arizona State at 3:30 p.m. PT on Pac-12 Network.