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WSU can’t solve USC’s defense, falls 76-65

The Trojans turned the screws on the Cougars in the second half.

WSU’s Dishon Jackson dunks against USC.
Jack Ellis/CougCenter

Washington State shot just 3-of-25 from behind the arc and Tahj Eaddy and Evan Mobley combined for 49 points on just 29 shots for USC as the No. 20 Trojans left Pullman with a 76-65 win on Saturday night.

The Cougars dropped to 12-9 overall and 5-9 in the Pac-12, while USC improved to 17-3 and 11-2, remaining on top of the league.

The outcome wasn’t entirely unexpected, so perhaps the most consequential thing to come out of this game is that Isaac Bonton had to be helped off the floor late after rolling his right ankle for a second time in a matter of minutes. It looked very painful and very bad for his prospects to play against Washington — a game that is on Monday night, thanks to a COVID scheduling quirk.

It was a horrible end to a frustrating night for WSU’s best offensive player, who struggled all game to get loose from USC’s stifling defense. The Trojans purposed to take Bonton out of the game, denying him the ball as much as possible, and his ability to get into the lane was snuffed out at nearly every turn by USC’s absurd length on the interior.

It left an opportunity for other players to step up, and one did: Dishon Jackson, who continued to assert himself around the basket to pour in 18 points on 12 shots. The Cougars were 21-of-41 on 2s, a rate much better than their season mark and one of the big reasons why they were able to maintain contact in this one despite shooting so poorly from behind the arc.

USC opened the game outscoring WSU 17-5 as Eaddy refused to miss — he scored 11 in the first six minutes. But WSU crawled back in it over the next seven minutes, outscoring the Trojans 20-8 to draw even at 25. Nobody made more than two buckets for WSU in the stretch, which was capped by a trio of free throws by Jaz Kunc.

But USC stretched it out again as Eaddy reasserted himself, stretching the lead back out to 10 with an 11-1 run, and the Cougars trailed by six heading into the break.

In a lot of ways, being down by just 6 seemed like a pretty huge victory. Beyond the fact that the Cougars had trailed by 22 at the break in the first matchup, WSU was as cold as can be from behind the arc, making just 1-of-11.

A few things allowed them to stay in it. In addition to making a high rate of twos, the Cougars minimized their empty possessions, turning the ball over just 6 times. Conversely, USC gave the ball away a bunch — 12 times! — which severely limited the impact of their hot shooting. WSU also owned the defensive glass.

It felt like the easiest path to get back in the game was to simply hit some 3s. Not even a lot, just a few.

It never came.

For the first 13 minutes of the second half, the USC lead ranged from four points to eight points with the Cougars simply unable to break through — every time they’d try to make a move, the Trojans had an answer.

That was until Kunc hit a 3 with five minutes to go to pull WSU to within 2. It wasn’t a lead, but it felt like a win was within the Cougs’ grasp, even as it continued to be exceedingly difficult to penetrate the USC defense.

Over the next four minutes, Mobley and Eaddy and the refs and the USC D put an end to that: Over five trips to the free throw line — only the last two of which were intentional — USC went on an 8-0 run to effectively end the game with a minute to go. After a first half in which the fouls were relatively even, the fouls were 10-5 in favor of USC before the Cougs started to send the Trojans to the line on purpose.

Even just a couple of more made 3s would have made the game extremely tight down the stretch.

“I thought we took pretty good (3s) for the most part and SC’s going to play inside-out and they’re going to give you a few,” WSU coach Kyle Smith said. “You try to make them over their length and we just didn’t execute well late when we were trying to get the ball inside.”

Now the Cougars set their sights on sweeping the season series with UW for the second consecutive season, potentially without Bonton. The game tips off at 5 p.m. on Pac-12 Networks.

“He’s tough, I think he’ll be back Monday,” Smith said. “He’s a little shook up but he wants to play in that game Monday. Hopefully he can.”