There would be no revenge for the Washington State Cougars in this one as the Arizona Wildcats used stifling defense and a relentless barrage in the second half to sweep the season series with a 69-56 win in Tucson on Thursday night.
The Cougars dropped to 14-11 overall and 7-11 in the Pac-12, while Arizona — which is ineligible for postseason play — improved to 16-8 and 10-8.
WSU never could find much of a rhythm, struggling from the outset against Arizona’s aggressive man-to-man defense. The Wildcats’ defense hasn’t been great all season, but it’s been very good from time-to-time, and tonight was one of those nights when it was very good: The Cougs could only score 0.85 points per possession.
The biggest problem for WSU was that neither of its guards could get going. Noah Williams looked like someone who had played 54 minutes and taken 35 shots less than a week ago as he struggled along to an 8-point performance on 2-of-15 shooting. The 3-point shot failed him (1-of-8) and he lacked the burst to get into the lane.
Isaac Bonton returned after missing three games with ankle injuries, but he just didn’t look ready: He made just 1-of-5 shots for 3 points in 19 minutes. Plus-minus can be a noisy stat, but he was minus-18 in those 19 minutes, which seemed pretty telling. He didn’t play over the final nine minutes.
And they just didn’t get any help on the perimeter: the Cougars were just 7-of-28 from beyond the arc. That’s low percentage, yes, but that also was a reflection of Arizona’s defense pushing the Cougs away from the basket and into contested shots — the 28 attempts was their third-most in regulation this season (Stanford 31, Eastern Washington 30).
The second-biggest problem for the WSU was foul trouble to their big men. Over the last month or so, rebounding has become a real strength. But with Dishon Jackson and Efe Abogidi each saddled with three fouls early in the second half, Kyle Smith elected to try and save them for later. It was a gamble that didn’t pay off — the Cougars had an exceedingly difficult time protecting the interior and they were crushed on the glass.
By the time they came back into the game with about 10 minutes to go, a four-point halftime deficit had swelled to double digits and the Cougars never could cut into it in a meaningful way down the stretch.
“Just a tough one tonight for us, I thought we played hard, very purposeful for the first 18, 20 minutes of the game,” WSU coach Kyle Smith said. “Actually played pretty hard throughout, but got to make shots to win on the road and didn’t shoot well enough. Didn’t rebound well enough. So you’re going to have to play really well in this league, especially against a team as talented as Arizona.”
Williams also struggled to contain Arizona’s stud point guard James Akinjo, who finished with a game-high 19 points, 6 rebounds, and 4 assists.
The game was actually close at halftime, as the two teams played more or less to a stalemate in the first 19 minutes. But WSU had a rough go of the final 60 seconds — Bonton got his pocket picked at halfcourt by Akinjo for a breakaway layup, then Williams missed a tough layup and Dalen Terry finished on a fastbreak the other way to give the Wildcats a four-point lead at halftime.
The Cougs kept it within 2-3 possessions for most of the first 10 minutes of the second half, but Akinjo turned up the heat, hitting a pair of free throws with 13:32 left to push the lead to nine, then a few minutes later hitting a 3 and then a free throw to to take the lead to 12.
WSU has come back from double-digit deficits this season, but not without major contributions from Bonton and Williams. In hindsight, maybe playing Bonton was a mistake.
“That happens when you come off an injury,” Smith said. “I don’t know if it’ll be hurting him ... we’ll see where it goes.”
The weirdness of the game was underscored by these two facts:
- Freshman TJ Bamba led the team in scoring with 12 points, his first time doing that this year; and
- Jaz Kunc led the team in rebounding with 14 boards, including four offensive.
Sometimes, it’s just not your night.
The Cougars will be back in action on Saturday against the Arizona State Sun Devils. The game will be broadcast on Pac-12 Networks at 6 p.m. PT.