PULLMAN – Success was slipping away.
Three consecutive defeats, built on offensive misfires and slipshod defensive efforts, had the Washington State University Cougars’ basketball season teetering.
It was time for accountability.
“When you lose three games in a row, it’s kind of that defining moment for a team and they really answered the bell,” said Arizona coach Sean Miller after WSU clamped down defensively and ran his Wildcats out of Beasley Coliseum, 78-60, in front of 8,135.
“They were the more aggressive team,” Miller continued. “They were a bigger team, a more excited team, a stronger team.”
The Cougars were all those things, but more importantly, they were something they haven’t been recently. They were the better defensive team.
Was Saturday’s win WSU’s best defensive effort of the season?
“I think it was,” Cougars coach Ken Bone answered. “We talked quite a bit about defense the past couple days because there have been games recently where we haven’t played up to the standards we like to play.”
The defense started in the first half, when WSU held Arizona (12-11, 6-5) to 33.3 percent shooting.
It continued in the second, when the Cougars (15-8, 5-6) forced eight UA turnovers and built a six-point edge into a blowout.
And it showed all game on the boards, as WSU grabbed 23 defensive rebounds, only one less than Arizona’s total.
“We wanted to get in the gaps, help on (Nic) Wise, Lamont Jones, Kyle Fogg and those guys,” explained reserve guard Xavier Thames. “I think that disrupted their offense today because we were in the gaps and in help position.”
Wise, the senior guard that is the engine of Arizona’s offense, misfired much of the night, finishing with 10 points, almost six below his average.
The Cougars were led by sophomore DeAngelo Casto, who had a career-high 19 points, three blocked shots and nine of WSU’s 36 rebounds.
“You don’t want to get shown up,” Casto said of his matchup with Derrick Williams, who scored 16 with seven rebounds. “You always want to be a good defender but you also want to go at him and let him know he’s not the only person on the court who can score.”
Casto put up a team-high 13 shots, making eight. He scored the Cougars’ first two hoops, which turned out to be their only baskets in the first 6 minutes, 22 seconds. By then Arizona had built a six-point lead and three WSU reserves were on the floor, establishing a pattern that would continue for 40 minutes.
“We were trying to make more of an effort to keep guys accountable for doing the right things,” said Bone, who played 10 in the first half, including freshman center Steven Bjornstad – for only the eighth time – and Michael Harthun.
“The concentration level was very high and when it wasn’t, we got them out,” Bone said.
All five subs helped WSU rally in some way, from Harthun picking up a charge to end the first half, to James Watson hitting two jumpers in key spots. The Cougar bench outscored UA’s 19-9 two days after the Wildcat reserves had scored 40 in Seattle.
The two who played the best were Thames and Brock Motum, who had career highs of 17 minutes played and 10 points.