PULLMAN – After another wild finish at Beasley Coliseum, fans filled the tunnel near the exit, their cheers echoing all the way into the media room as coaches and players answered questions from reporters.
But given the way the Cougars once appeared in total control of this game, who could have guessed that those fans would be wearing purple?
A 13-point Washington State lead evaporated at the free-throw line in the second half here Saturday night, as visiting Washington claimed a 59-55 win before 9,325 spectators whose frenzy was matched only by their ultimate bewilderment – at the foul shot failure, as well as a curious personnel decision late in the game.
But the primary culprit? All those missed freebies. The Cougars (14-14, 6-10 Pac-12) made just six of their 20 free throws in the second half after making 11 of 12 in the opening period.
“Helpless is a good word,” coach Ken Bone said, “because there’s not a whole lot you can do about it.”
Helpless. It’s what the Huskies were in the opening minutes of the second half, going nearly nine minutes between field goals at one point.
Brock Motum flushed a monster jam over Huskies star Terrence Ross, who picked up his fourth foul on the play. Abe Lodwick dunked in transition. Another UW turnover led to an easy Marcus Capers bucket.
“It felt,” said UW guard C.J. Wilcox, “like we were down by 40.”
But it was when the Cougars had their hands gripped most firmly around UW’s throat that they began to loosen.
A technical foul by UW forward Austin Seferian-Jenkins – after he’d fouled D.J. Shelton in the act of shooting – gave the Cougars a chance to extend their 43-32 lead with 13:11 to play.
Washington looked dead, yes. But perhaps overlooked at that point was that Shelton made just one of his free throws, and Reggie Moore missed both technical shots. Motum was fouled seconds later and split a pair.
WSU led 45-32 with 12:46 to go. But those misses mattered.
“The thing when you’re playing UW,” said Capers, who scored 14 points in his final home game, “whether they’re the home team or the away team, they’re always going to make a run.”
UW (20-8, 13-3) erased the deficit in less than five minutes, back-to-back three-point plays by Tony Wroten and Aziz N’Diaye serving as the catalyst.
Also, Mike Ladd missed a pair of free throws. So did Capers. Then he missed another. Moore made two out of four down the stretch.
With the Huskies leading 57-55 after Wroten (game-high 21 points) made a free throw with 24.6 seconds left, Bone subbed in seldom-used sophomore Patrick Simon, who hadn’t played all game.
Out of a timeout, Moore threw Simon a pass in the corner. He was open. But his shot missed everything, the Huskies rebounded and Wilcox iced the game with two free throws. Washington made 15 of 19 in the second half.
Bone said he instructed Simon, a reputed sharp-shooter whose minutes have been limited this season, to “bury it” if he had an open look.
“If we had a chance to run the same thing right now, I think we would do it,” Bone said of Simon, who had made just one field goal in WSU’s previous 14 games. “I think our teammates would trust that he would make the shot, because he does it so often.”
“That’s exactly how we drew it,” said Motum, who scored 17 points, “and he took the shot and missed it. That’s it.”
They did a lot of that. But afterward, players still spoke in encouraging terms about preparing for games against UCLA and USC before the Pac-12 tournament.
“If we played soft and we gave up, I would be like real disappointed in this loss,” Capers said. “… Everybody who came in the game fought. You can’t really ask for anything else.”
Except for a few more free throws.