The Washington State Cougars took a two-point lead with just under 8 minutes to play, but the Stanford Cardinal closed on a 22-5 to hand the Cougs their second loss of the season, 75-60, in Santa Cruz, California.
The Cougars (9-2 overall, 2-2 in the Pac-12) haven’t had trouble finishing games this year, but trying to score late against the Cardinal’s top 10 defense is a bit of a different animal — and it was a task made harder by the absence of Noah Williams, who left the game late in the first half with what appeared to be a lower back injury after a dirty foul by Stanford’s Spencer Jones, who undercut Williams on a soaring layup.
Efe Abogidi struggled on the interior with Stanford’s stout defense for much of the night, but it was back-to-back NBA-distance 3-pointers by WSU’s stellar freshman big man that gave the Cougars a 55-53 lead with just under 8 minutes to play. It capped a comeback from an 11-point halftime deficit in which Abogidi and Andrej Jakimovski put on a show from distance, hitting six 3-pointers between them.
Stanford’s Oscar da Silva — who finished with 27 points — came right back with a 3 of his own, then after an empty possession for the Cougs, he grabbed his own miss (one of his 13 rebounds) and stuck it back in for a 3-point Stanford lead.
But Jakimovski capped the next WSU possession with his fourth 3-pointer of the half — part of a 5-of-9 overall performance from deep — and the game was tied with six minutes to play.
That’s when it all fell apart — and da Silva took over completely.
The Cougars’ vaunted interior defense struggled for most of the first half, allowing the Cardinal to shoot 16-of-23 inside the arc. But WSU had turned it around completely through the first 12 minutes of the second half, steadily chipping away. Da Silva, the Cardinal’s leading scorer and probably the Pac-12’s leader for player of the year, scored 10 points in the first half but had just one bucket in the second half before Abogidi’s 3s.
He put on a show after that. Da Silva layup. Da Silva free throws. Da Silva free throws. Da Silva layup. Da Silva layup. Yeah, there were a couple of other buckets by other guys in there, but those 10 points were the power behind an 18-3 finishing kick from the Cardinal.
It was the “three” in that 18-3 that was the real issue, though. Stanford tightened up the clamps, particularly on Isaac Bonton. WSU’s leading scorer had poured in 13 in the first half to keep the Cougars from completely losing contact with the Cardinal. But down the stretch, Stanford made a concerted effort to not allow Bonton to beat them, and without Williams’ ability to knife into the defense and get to the rim, the Cougars found every possession a real struggle. Bonton scored just five points in the second half, including just one point in the final 13 minutes.
The Cougars really just seemed to run out of gas on both ends of the floor, as they ended up allowing 63% on 2s — or, about 25% more than they had allowed in the first 10 games — while shooting just 31% on their own attempts inside the arc. Abogidi wowed with his 3-point shooting, but he did hit a 2-pointer in the game and pulled in just three rebounds. Dishon Jackson had zero points (although he did grab seven boards), and TJ Bamba — filling in for Williams in the continued absence of Ryan Rapp — had just 1 point on 6 shots (although he did have two assists).
Jakimovski actually ended up leading the team in scoring with 19 points, while Bonton totaled 18. Tony Miller had 11 points and 8 rebounds, 4 of them offensive.
The Cougars will next be in action on Thursday at UCLA, which is fresh off a win over Arizona. The Bruins, ranked No. 28 by kenpom.com, will be the highest-ranked team WSU has faced this season ... until they face USC (No. 17) on Saturday.
Tough, tough weekend coming up for the young Cougs. There’s no word on the extent of Williams’ injury, but here’s to hoping the Cougs can get as close to full strength as possible before Thursday.