Noah Williams scored 24 points in the first half en route to one of the best individual performances in program history — 32 points, 9 rebounds and 7 assists — as the Washington State Cougars easily dispatched the California Golden Bears, 82-51 on Thursday night in Pullman.
WSU improved to 13-10 overall and 6-10 in the Pac-12, while Cal dropped to 8-16 and 3-14, remaining last in the Pac-12.
The Cougars have played a handful games that were over by halftime this year, but virtually all of those were games where the Cougars were on the wrong end of the score line, particularly in Pac-12 play. This was the first game since Prairie View A&M where it was the Cougars who had put the contest out of reach after the first 20 minutes.
That was largely due to the play of Noah Williams.
To be frank, Williams has been in a funk. After being a reliable and efficient second fiddle to Isaac Bonton’s lead, Williams had been in a stretch of five subpar games — including just 12 points with 4 turnovers in Monday’s loss to Washington, in which he waited until late in the game to assert himself.
Apparently Williams was irritated by his first loss to Washington, as there was no such waiting tonight.
“I came in with a chip on my shoulder, for sure,” Williams said. “I was just here to play basketball, the game just flowed my way. Yeah, it was a tough loss to UW that actually really hurt. That actually hit home, so I just had to bounce back.”
Without both Isaac Bonton (still out with an ankle injury) and Ryan Rapp (undisclosed), WSU outscored Cal 21-10 in the first 10-ish minutes of the game, and Williams had 11 of those points for the Cougars. He had a layup, a jumper, a pair of 3-pointers and a free throw, showing Cal what they’d have to deal with all night long.
Much of that came with Cal’s stud scorer Matt Bradley on the bench to start the game, and there was a feeling that the game would eventually come back around to competitiveness when Bradley — one of the top players in the conference — settled in.
But it never happened. An Andrej Jakimovski 3-pointer with 8:20 to play in the first half put WSU up by 12 and the Cougars never led by single digits again. A 10-0 run to end the first half — keyed by 7 points from Williams — pushed the lead to 22 at the break, and the Cougars’ lead only dropped below 20 a couple of times before they pushed it to 33 with 7:41 to play thanks to a 15-0 run that included a pair of 3-pointers from DJ Rodman, as well as another 3 from Jakimovski.
It was the kind of dominant performance you expect to see against a SWAC team in November, not against a Pac-12 team in February. In fact, it’s the largest conference win in almost 30 years:
Largest win in conference play since beating Stanford by 33 (87-54) Feb. 27, 1993— WSUCougarNotes (@WSUCougarNotes) February 19, 2021
It also was WSU’s largest margin of victory ever against Cal.
The game was such an extreme anomaly in so many ways. WSU’s recent turnover problems all but disappeared in this one, as the Cougars gave the ball away just 7 times — their first time in single digits all season. Due in no small part to the lack of empty trips, WSU scored their 82 points on just 62 possessions — a whopping 1.33 points per trip — which was easily their highest of the entire season, including non-conference games. In Pac-12 games, the next closest was 1.14 points per possession in the win over UCLA a week ago.
“We’ve been harping on (the turnovers) for awhile and finally,” WSU coach Kyle Smith said. “We did a lot of push-ups and sit-ups and we’re going to keep going with it. I guess the coaching staff has to do some now. When we’re under 12, it should be five sets for the coaching staff. I’ll get in there, I’ll get in there and do some push-ups. My abs could use some work.”
It’s always good when you can hit one of Craig’s keys to the game:
The win also represented a season high for Williams in both shots and efficiency, which is a pretty deadly combination! When he was on the floor, roughly 40% of WSU’s possessions ended with him, a ridiculously high number that was completely justified in this one.
He scored with an array of moves that, frankly, I’m not sure any of us knew he had. We’ve seen the improved 3-pointer this season, and he was 4-of-6 from deep. But he’s typically been an opportunistic attacker of the basket, and he really forced the issue in this one — to great effect.
One of the craziest developments was Williams — a notoriously right-handed player — driving to his left a few times to catch Cal off guard:
The only way this half could end: Noah Williams splits the defense, gets to the rim and earns two FTs to put #WSU ahead 48-26 against #Cal. Williams has a career-high 24 pts ... in 20 minutes. pic.twitter.com/0LtQq3Hvtj— Theo Lawson (@TheoLawson_SR) February 19, 2021
He also had those seven assists:
Williams had a legit shot at a triple-double — as well as the career high of 43 points for his dad, Guy Williams, a star at WSU in the 1980s — but he was taken off the floor with just under 7 minutes to play and the game well in hand.
Noah Williams was aiming for the career-high 43 pts. set by his dad Guy Williams at #WSU in the 1980s. Williams was pulled with 6:50 to play tonight.— Theo Lawson (@TheoLawson_SR) February 19, 2021
“I’m here to keep on going, I want to beat it.” pic.twitter.com/XRVRCswMOu
For what it’s worth, it wasn’t just the Williams show; Jakimovski continued to build on his recent strong play, scoring 11 points thanks to 3-of-6 shooting from beyond the arc while also flirting with is own triple-double by adding 9 assists and 7 rebounds. DJ Rodman (11 points) and Efe Abogidi (10 points) also hit double digits for WSU.
And with all the talk of the Cougars’ offensive exploits, it can be easy to overlook the defense. We would be remiss to do that; the Golden Bears scored just 0.83 points per possession, one of the lowest outputs of the season for a WSU opponent. Cal made just 39% of its 2s and 29% of its 3s while picking up just 7 offensive rebounds; the Cougars played primarily zone on the night and Cal found it exceedingly difficult to line up open looks.
The Cougars will be back in action on Saturday to try and avenge an earlier season loss to Stanford. Tip off is at 1 p.m. PT on ESPNU.