TUCSON, Ariz. – Even Ken Bone is tired of saying it at this point. But he must continue, because otherwise there isn’t much positive to glean from Washington State’s eight-game losing streak.
The Cougars are still trying, double-digit halftime deficits be damned. They’re still attentive. They still care. Nobody has taken that from them yet.
“Broken record,” Bone, the WSU men’s basketball coach, said with a wry smile. “Just keep fighting, keep battling.”
But what No. 12 Arizona did take here at McKale Center was another victory, this one by the comfortable score of 73-56 and facilitated by WSU’s disjointed first-half offense and shockingly poor free-throw shooting. Kevin Parrom’s five 3-pointers didn’t help, either.
So that loss column continues to ascend. The Cougars are 11-17 and 2-13 in Pac-12 play now, still wondering when they’re going to play to their capabilities for 40 minutes, still swearing that it will make a difference when they do.
For much of this season, WSU’s problem was that it couldn’t close. Now it has trouble starting. Why?
“Man, I wish I could tell you,” said WSU senior forward Brock Motum. “If I could, I bet you we’d have played better in the first half. It’s just a mind-set, man. We just need to be aggressive from the start.”
They weren’t on Saturday, when the Wildcats raced to a 20-7 lead as the Cougars dropped passes, slopped their way through too many late shot clocks and mostly passed the ball around the perimeter. Noticeably absent was senior guard Mike Ladd, sidelined again by a left knee injury.
Bone said he thought the Cougars would have had a few more decent looks at the basket if they’d simply been stronger with the ball.
Grab a stat sheet, flip to the first half and find the reason for WSU’s eighth consecutive loss: The Cougars went 10 minutes between made baskets – from 18:19 until the 8:19 mark – shooting 2-for-6 from the free-throw line in that time while Arizona assembled its model of offensive efficiency.
The Wildcats (23-4, 11-4) made midrange jumpers, seemingly had open 3-pointers whenever they wanted them – they made 11 of 22 when all was said and done – and 7-foot center Kaleb Tarczewksi operated with relative ease in the post.
Arizona’s outside shooting forced WSU’s defense to sag, which allowed Tarczewski to score 12 points and grab six rebounds in 23 minutes. He was also a deterrent for any Cougar ball-handler who happened to dribble inside the 3-point line, as were lanky forwards Angelo Chol and Brandon Ashley.
Arizona shot 55.6 percent from the field, led by Parrom’s 19 points and 14 from point guard Mark Lyons.
“They exploited us,” Bone said. “They hit 3s, they dumped it inside. There were some breakdowns but I thought our defense was decent, as crazy as that might sound.”
The lead was 35-19 after a first half in which the Cougars committed more turnovers (eight) than made field goals (6-for-17).
Still, this group remains too proud to allow opponents to roll them. So Motum got busy in the second half and finished with 20 points for the first time since Jan. 26, helping WSU trim Arizona’s lead to 11 points – they fell behind by 22 early in the second half – on two separate occasions. The Cougars shot 52.2 percent from the field after halftime.
“I need to attack more,” said Motum, who made 7 for 13 from the field and had more open looks at the rim than he’s had in weeks. “I’ve just been on the perimeter a lot and I sort of lost my way a little bit, settling for some jump shots. … I just need to get back to what I was doing.”
Motum had a chance to cut the lead to nine with 8:23 to play, but missed a pair of free throws, two of the Cougars’ 14 misses in 28 tries. Parrom made 3-pointers on three consecutive possessions, the first after WSU’s Bryce Leavitt missed a fast-break layup with more than 7 minutes remaining and Arizona leading 49-38.
This was Arizona, after all, and the Wildcats are tied for the conference lead for a reason. The Cougars will take another frustrating lesson home with them, then prepare for a game next Sunday at Washington.
“In the second half we were way more aggressive,” said sophomore guard DaVonte Lacy, “and I think we figured that out. If we play them again in the tournament, then we’ll know what to do from the start.”