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In praise of Noah Williams’ supporting cast

The Cougs don’t beat Stanford without some massive contributions from the other players on the floor.

PULLMAN, WA - FEBRUARY 20: Washington State center Efe Abogidi (0) watches as a shot falls during the second half of a Pac 12 matchup between the Stanford Cardinal and the Washington State Cougars on February 20, 2021, at Beasley Coliseum in Pullman, WA. Jack Ellis/CougCenter

Noah Williams rightfully gets almost all the postgame attention for his performance on Saturday, scoring 40 points in a triple-OT win over Stanford. To be sure, Washington State doesn’t win that game without him doing what he did, carrying the burden to get the game to overtime by scoring 34 of WSU’s 63 points in regulation — including a 3-pointer just before the buzzer to tie the game.

But because Pac-12 Refs decided to ignore an extremely blatant foul on Williams’ 3-pointer, he was denied an opportunity to win it in regulation. Heading to OT, the tank was pretty close to empty. I didn’t realize it at the time, but Noah missed his first 10(!) shots of overtime while turning the ball over 3 times. He did go 4-of-5 on free throws over that span, but the Cougs really needed others to step up.

And they did.

Efe Abogidi actually led WSU in points in the overtimes, scoring 9, including a huge 3-pointer that finally put the game on ice — and he also added 4 rebounds. Andrej Jakimovski scored just 1 point, but contributed 3 assists and 3 rebounds. Jaz Kunc had 3 points, 3 rebounds, and a big steal. DJ Rodman hit a big 3 and grabbed a couple of rebounds. Dishon Jackson had no points, but 2 rebounds, 1 assist and 1 steal.

For as much as WSU never gets to overtime without Williams’ heroics, WSU also doesn’t end up with the win without Williams’ teammates. Tremendous effort all-around.

Kunc in particular should be singled out for praise.

Earlier this season, if you were asking me to pick a guy who would probably be looking for a new home after this season because of a positional squeeze on the roster — WSU has a lot of wings — it would have been Kunc. He wasn’t recruited by this staff, and after beginning last season as the starting 4, he either didn’t play or made only a token appearance in five of the last nine games. When he did play, his efficiency as a low-usage player was poor.

“You know, end of the year, he just wasn’t playing well,” WSU coach Kyle Smith said after the game on Saturday. “Tony (Miller) had passed him, and I was just like, ‘Hey, you know, I just don’t know if you’re going to be able to play here next year, but you do have a great attitude, you work hard, and proud to be a Coug,’ and I said, ‘You might want to play some place else where you’ll get more opportunity.’ And he’s like, ‘Nope, I’m going to prove to you that I can play here.’ ”

Now, he’s in the midst of a really nice run of games. He’s a limited-opportunity scorer, but he’s hit double digits in three of the last five games and his efficiency is off the charts, thanks largely to shooting 8-of-18 on 3s. He darn near saved us against Washington. He’s also had four or more rebounds in four of those five games, pulling in 9 offensive rebounds, and he’s vastly improved his on-ball defending, drawing a number of charges. Smith singled him out specifically for his job on Pac-12 Player of the Year candidate Oscar da Silva.

“I can’t tell you how proud I am of that guy. ... It’s awesome,” Smith said. “He’s not the first one I’ve ever had that conversation with that’s proved me wrong. He’s a really good defender, he’s a great teammate, he’s grown in confidence. Really happy for him. ... He’s battled through, and I think all of Coug nation can be proud of that guy.”

Jakimovski also deserves to be recognized. WSU fans had pretty lofty expectations for the freshman international from North Macedonia, owing to his lofty recruiting ranking. He quickly established himself as a mainstay in the lineup, but without the opportunity to slowly adjust to the American college game — he became a 30-minute guy basically starting in the second game — his growing pains have been front and center.

Before he sat out a pair of games against UCLA and USC with a groin injury, his 3-point shooting — his main contribution to the offense — had hit a massive slump. Between January 14 and February 6, he was 3-of-25 from beyond the arc. His minutes, accordingly, were down.

However, in the last three games since returning from that injury, he has shot 7-of-16 from 3, dished out 20 assists against 5 turnovers, and has collected 17 rebounds. That’s an average of 9.3 points, 6.7 assists, and 5.7 rebounds, which is extremely useful. It correlates with his shift to a bit more of a ball-handler role with Isaac Bonton (and, later, Ryan Rapp) out — something we suspected he could do when he signed with the team nine months ago. Who knows if correlation equals causation, but it’s something to keep an eye on.

Watching a guy struggle and fight through it and grow from it is one of the most satisfying things for a college basketball fan, so it was equally cool to see Abogidi knock down that 3-pointer that drained the last bit of will from Stanford to fight. He had missed 20 in a row, but he just kept shooting them, something Smith said he encouraged Abogidi to do. They had even drawn up a play to get him a 3-point look on the first possession of the second half.

One of the reasons I love watching Abogidi so much is because he’s absolutely going to be a star. He’s got such an uncommon confidence in his abilities, something I would guess comes from traveling the globe in pursuit of a basketball career. From Nigeria to Senegal to Australia to Pullman ... you better believe in what you’re doing if you’re going to go to all that trouble.

We’re just scratching the surface on all these guys. This year isn’t over yet, but I’m already getting excited for the next one.