The Washington State Cougars rebounded nicely from their first loss of the season by putting together one of the best defensive efforts in Pac-12 history, holding the Arizona State Sun Devils under 30 points to walk out of Tempe with a 51-29 victory.
The defense had been a bit of an enigma this season for the Cougs (6-1 overall, 1-0 Pac-12), who coughed up a 19-point first half lead to Eastern Washington on Saturday to end their unbeaten run to start the season. It was a bit of a puzzling development, given the emphasis coach Kyle Smith generally puts on that side of the ball.
There were no such issues on Wednesday, as the Sun Devils’ 29 points represented a new all-time low for a WSU conference opponent. ASU (2-6. 0-1) shot just 21% overall in the game — 3-of-26 from beyond the arc and 9-of-31 inside it.
The game was close for a half, as the Cougars struggled nearly as much as the Sun Devils to put the ball in the basket. WSU actually sprinted out to a 10-0 lead, and the score was 10-3 with just under 3 minutes gone in the game. But then the two teams went nearly eight minutes without scoring a point — a truly incredible run of terrible basketball by both teams:
Eventually, WSU would finish the half on a 6-0 “run” over the final 5 minutes to take a modest 18-10 lead into the break.
The second half was all WSU. It wasn’t exactly an offensive explosion, but the 33 points after the break were more than enough bury ASU. A 19-6 “run” — again, we use the term loosely, given that it covered nearly nine minutes — to start the second half extended the Cougs’ lead to 21 at 37-16 with just under 12 minutes to play. The Sun Devils never got closer than 17 the rest of the way.
Dominating defense: It’s hard to use words to paint a picture of how suffocating the Cougars were on that end of the floor tonight. They got back to a lot of the things that made them so successful last season: Chasing shooters off the 3-point line and funneling drivers into the Cougars’ trees. ASU actually still shot 26 of their 57 shots from beyond the arc — a higher rate (45%) than their season average (39%) — but the majority were contested, and at least some of their decision to shoot so many 3 was because when they finally did venture near the rim, there was just no room: The Cougars blocked 8 shots, a whopping 26% of the 2s attempted by ASU.
Not only was it the Cougs’ best defensive performance of the season by a country mile — just 0.44 points per possession, less than half of the previous best this season (0.85 allowed to Idaho) — it also was their best efficiency performance against a conference opponent in the kenpom era (post-2002). The previous low was 0.66 given up to Oregon on March 11, 2009.
Put another way, this was a better defensive performance against a Pac-10/12 opponent than anything Dick or Tony Bennett oversaw.
Wiping the glass: Maybe the best indicator of the Cougars’ dominance was the way they controlled the boards on both ends of the floor. On the defensive end, they allowed the Sun Devils to rebound just 21% of their own misses; on the offensive end, the Cougars picked up 34% of theirs. WSU was just bigger, longer, and — frankly — more active than ASU. The starting frontcourt of Dishon Jackson and Mouhamed Gueye each picked up 10 rebounds, while Efe Abogidi ripped down 6 off the bench.
Welcome back, Noah: Through seven games, it’s pretty clear that Noah Williams is the team’s talisman. The one game he didn’t play, the Cougs looked a bit rudderless, lacking an edge and intensity. It cost them as the game against the Eagles got away from them. Tonight, Noah was back — and the edge was back. It can sometimes be a rollercoaster with Williams, who has to keep his emotions from spilling over the edge — he picked up a silly and unnecessary offensive foul tonight during a particularly competitive moment — but it’s super obvious that however team this far goes, he’s going to have a major roll.