PULLMAN – A quick start wasn’t surprising, considering Washington State’s opponent on Thursday night.
But after lowly USC charged back from a seven-point deficit to take an early lead, WSU coach Ken Bone turned to his bench and did something he hadn’t been able to since early January.
He signaled for guard Mike Ladd to check into the game. Enough, apparently, was enough.
“I was just like, ‘Forget it,’” Bone said. “We’re putting him in there right now and seeing if he can do anything.”
Well, yes, he could. And he did. Ladd only scored six points in WSU’s 60-53 win at Beasley Coliseum but grabbed four rebounds and played sound defense in the Cougars’ man-to-man, which they used for the entire game.
That, and 26 points and eight rebounds from junior forward Brock Motum, helped WSU maintain its perfect record at Beasley this season.
Ladd sat out the Cougars’ last five games with a torn ligament in his right thumb, an injury that Bone said had Ladd’s status for the rest of the season “up in the air” just two days ago.
But some increased participation in practice this week, coupled with a successful pregame workout orchestrated by WSU assistant Curtis Allen – who “couldn’t tell at all that the thumb was bothering him,” said Bone – had the junior guard ready to go. Perhaps his return was hastened by the absence of second-leading scorer Faisal Aden, who tore the ACL in his left knee last Thursday and is lost for the season.
“I talked to the doc, and he told me just to try to play through it,” Ladd said. “And I knew my team needed me, especially with Fais going down. I just wanted to get out there and contribute to rebounding and the defensive end.
“I feel it (the thumb) a little bit, but I try not to let it affect me.”
For once, the Cougars (12-10, 4-6 Pac-12) had their opponent outclassed. They held the undermanned Trojans – down to six scholarship players because of a bevy of injuries – to 36 percent shooting from 3-point range, allowed only 14 points in the paint and let USC to the free throw line just three times while enjoying a 34-20 edge on the glass.
Since the Trojans (6-17, 1-9) had just one player taller than 6-foot-7, Motum had no trouble continuing the offensive efficiency that allowed him to score a career-high 34 points against Arizona State on Saturday. He made 9-11 from the field and 7-10 from the free throw line in 34 minutes.
The highlight was a tomahawk slam that gave the Cougars a 41-31 lead early in the second half.
“Once any team gets in the paint, it’s hard to guard,” Motum said. “The guards did a good job finding me, getting me the ball.”
WSU looked as if it may blow the game open after halftime, reeling off a 9-0 run to take a 45-31 lead.
But just as it had all night, USC hung around. That was due in part to the Cougars’ resting Motum and playing a weak offensive lineup that struggled to get good looks at the rim.
They also struggled to get stops, a familiar refrain for this team. The Trojans were mostly inept offensively, but seemed at their best each time the Cougars threatened to run away.
A 6-0 mini-run capped by Maurice Jones’ layup cut the lead to 47-40. And after a bucket by Byron Wesley with 6:42 to play, the Cougars clung to a 49-45 lead, their smallest of the second half.
But Reggie Moore made a free throw, Ladd and Motum made two each and Moore scored inside before the Trojans scored again, and USC never came closer than five the rest of the way.
“I’m just really pleased we were able to pull out a win,” Bone said. “We needed it.”