TUCSON, Ariz. – A lapse here, a lapse there. That’s all it takes when you are playing the 12th-ranked team in the nation on their home court.
And that was the difference Thursday night for Washington State.
Three tough stretches were the difference in the Pac-10-leading Wildcats’ seventh consecutive win, a 79-70 decision over WSU that came despite 30 points from conference scoring leader Klay Thompson.
The win, Arizona’s 14th at McKale Center this season, moved the Wildcats to 11-2 in Pac-10 play, 21-4 overall. WSU, continuing a recent trend of following wins with losses, fell to 7-7 in conference – still fourth – and 17-9 overall.
But afterward, unlike in recent defeats to Oregon and Stanford, there was no self-recriminations from the Cougars for the effort. Just the result.
“We really played hard,” coach Ken Bone said. “We competed. If we continue to do that, we’re going to win some more games.”
Just not this one.
No, that chance slipped away in the first few minutes of both halves and a 1-minute, 34-second spell near the end.
The first 5:38 of the game Arizona sprinted out to a 13-4 lead. The first 3:02 of the second, it scored nine consecutive points to stretch an eight-point halftime edge to 50-33.
After Thompson shot the Cougars back into it, cutting the lead to 66-61 with 5:47 remaining, WSU just couldn’t get the ball to drop.
It started with Faisal Aden, just 1 of 4 from the field, missing the front end of a 1-and-1.
Arizona answered, as it did 24 times in 26 chances, with free throws, these two by Jordin Mayes, his only points.
Brock Motum cut the lead back to five with two free throws of his own and Washington State, down 68-63, picked up the pressure.
“They’re patient, they share the ball,” Thompson said when asked what the Wildcats do well. “And they really play good help defense.”
The first part came right into play, as UA milked the clock, using a high screen to free Kyle Fogg. DeAngelo Casto, guarding UA star Derrick Williams, had to help.
Fogg dumped the ball to Williams 10 feet from the basket as the 35-second clock ran down. Williams’ fall-away fell through as the shot clock buzzed, part of his 26 points.
“It was (a killer) because not only was it the end of the possession, a big possession, but then the crowd just went nuts,” said Casto, who put together another strong effort, hitting 5 of 9 shots, scoring 14 points and grabbing six rebounds.
“It was almost like your breath was taken away.”
Maybe his was, because on the other end Aden got free on the baseline, drew Williams, and fed Casto. The 6-foot-8 junior went up to dunk – and missed, jamming the ball against the rim. A foul on the rebound and Fogg hit two free throws. It was 72-63, 4:13 was left and UA had survived.
“No excuses,” said Casto, who turned 21 Thursday. “I just missed it. And it killed the momentum for our team.”
Momentum supplied by Thompson’s biggest offensive output in more than a month.
Like his teammates, Thompson started slowly, missing his first three shots as Fogg tried to lock him down like he did in Pullman. But Thompson hit five of his last eight in the half to go into the locker room with 12 points.
After missing the first shot of the second half, the 6-6 Thompson started to attack the 6-3 Fogg inside. That aggressive attitude led to 11 points in less than 3 minutes and triggered a 26-14 stretch that pulled WSU back within five.
“We let (Klay) Thompson get going,” said Solomon Hill, who got the Cats going himself with seven of his 12 points in the first 2:39 of the second half. “Klay’s a great scorer. He got hot and it caused us to break down. Then we got it back together.”
Thompson was 5-of-8 beyond the arc and finished 11 of 24 overall as WSU shot 43.3 percent from the floor. Arizona, the conference’s best 3-point shooting team, hit just 29.4 percent of its long-range shots, but was efficient inside the arc, converting 57.1 percent of its shorter attempts.
“There’s a reason why they are ranked (12th) and why they win so many games on their home court,” Bone said. “They’re really good.”
And they hit their free throws. Led by Williams’ 12-of-12 effort, the Cats hit their first 21 and didn’t miss until they had a 10-point lead with 2:22 left.
Such execution helped stave off the Cougars’ rally.
“That’s a sign of a good team, a veteran team that knows how to win,” Bone said. “Good teams don’t beat themselves. And Arizona didn’t allow it to happen.”