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WSU drops heartbreaker to Arizona in 2OT, 86-82

The Cougs were doomed by poor free throw shooting.

Noah Williams had 16 points for WSU against Arizona.
Photo Services, Washington State University

The Washington State Cougars dropped an absolute heartbreaker tonight when they fell to the Arizona Wildcats in double overtime in Pullman, 86-82, suffering their first loss of the season.

The game will most be remembered for the Cougs’ atrocious free throw shooting — they hit just 19-of-37 overall, costing themselves multiple chances to more or less ice the game — but that’s unfair. What it should be remembered for is an undermanned team battling a superior opponent down to the wire and putting itself in position to win.

WSU played without starting center Vova Markovetskyy, and reserves Ryan Rapp, Brandton Chatfield, and DJ Rodman, all of whom were out due to Covid issues. (It’s unclear whether anyone tested positive or if contact tracing was the culprit.) That forced Kyle Smith into doing his best juggling act against Arizona’s large, athletic, and deep front line, with only two big men at his disposal — Efe Abogidi and Dishon Jackson.

The Cougs rolled with a 2-3 zone for the vest majority of the evening in a presumed effort to protect the big men. The ploy worked, probably better than Smith could have imagined as the Wildcats suffered their second-worst shooting night of the season. Beyond that, the Wildcats never converted the gaps in the defense into offensive rebounds, picking up just 31% of their misses — again, second worst of the season.

But even with that, there was only so much to be done with the lineup. Jackson fouled out with eight minutes left in the game after logging just 15 total minutes, while Abogidi was able to make it 30 seconds into overtime before picking up his fifth.

You’d think Arizona would have run away with it at some point, but the Cougs had myriad chances to pull off the victory through sheer guts and desire.

And the hot shooting hand of Isaac Bonton.

The second half belonged to Bonton and Noah Williams, who scored 15 and 10 points, respectively, as the game see-sawed back and forth. At one point, Bonton scored 13 of the Cougs 21 points during a run that flipped a 5-point deficit with 10:32 to play into a 4-point lead with 4:03 to go.

Two minutes later, with the Cougs trailing by one, Andrej Jakimovski buried a 3-pointer to put WSU back up by two. Azuolas Tubelis and Bonton traded layups, then the Wildcats hit back-to-back jumpers to lead by two with 30 seconds to play. But Bonton found Abogidi underneath the basket and his layup with 23 seconds left tied it up again. A lockdown defensive effort on Arizona’s final possession sent the game to overtime.

Arizona hit the first shot of OT, but even without Abogidi — who committed an offensive foul on the first WSU possession — the Cougs went on a little 5-0 run over 2:30 to take a three-point lead with 1:02 to play in the extra period.

That’s when the crucial sequence came. On the ensuing Arizona possession, Tony Miller stole the ball with 52 seconds left, which ended up with Noah Williams, who was fouled. Williams has become known for his ice cold free throws down the stretch, but he missed both — and it was still a one-possession game.

After Arizona closed the gap to one on the next trip, Williams had a chance to atone and push the lead back to three. But he could only make one, and Terrell Brown’s layup tied it with 12 seconds to play.

Bonton had a chance to win it coming back the other way, and he was able to shake his defender for a clean look at a long two, but the shot bounced off the rim, and we were headed for a second overtime — and more free throw pain.

Down by 1 about a minute into the second OT, Carlos Rosario — making his first appearance of the season, so desperate was Smith for bodies — missed a pair of free throws. A couple of minutes later, with the game tied, Bonton missed a pair.

Still, the Cougs had a shot, as a Bonton layup with 40 seconds to go tied the game. And the Cougs played tremendous defense on the next Arizona possession, forcing Brown into a long, contested 3 over Williams from the top of the key.

He banked it in. Three-point lead for Arizona with 12 seconds to go.

Bonton tried to quickly get up the floor quickly, but Arizona fouled him intentionally — and of course he missed one of the two free throws, Arizona hit both of theirs, and it was a two-possession game with under 10 seconds left, which effectively ended it.

In all, the Cougars shot 5-of-14 on free throws in the two overtimes.

Bonton finished with 25 points overall, along with 4 rebounds and 3 assists. Williams finished with 16 points, 2 rebounds and 1 assist, while Jakimovski scored 15 with 8 rebounds and Abogidi had 12 points, 8 rebounds, and 3 monster blocks, including this ridiculous thing:

He also did this:

Despite shooting just 8-of-29 in the first half — including 2-of-14 from 3-point range — the Cougs trailed by just two at the break, 29-27, because their defense was spectacular: Arizona shot just 27% and — more importantly — only grabbed 6 offensive rebounds, denying the Wildcats the shot volume that fuels their offense.

The weird thing is that it could have been even better for the Cougs than that if not for some curious officiating in the final few minutes. WSU held a lead for the vast majority of the opening period, leading by five with three minutes to go. But foul trouble with the bigs caused Kyle Smith to go small, and the Wildcats erased the lead for the first tie since the 13:19 mark.

Jackson gave WSU the lead once again — briefly — when he collected an offensive rebound and powered it up and in. But Sean Miller got in the ear of the refs, who went to the review monitor, and subsequently gave Jackson a flagrant foul for leading with his elbow into the chin of an Arizona defender.

Smith was apoplectic, as it not only gifted Arizona two points, but also was Jackson’s third foul.

The game had been chippy, and the refs decided they needed to exert their control. Smith’s fury boiled over a minute later when he was given a technical after a questionable foul called on the Cougs on a drive by the Wildcats; Arizona hit all four free throws; but on the last one, Tony Miller was fouled trying to box out, and he made one of two to cut the Arizona lead to two.

WSU will next be in action on Thursday in Berkeley against California.