PULLMAN – There have been times this season, too many for Washington State’s liking, when the Cougars simply didn’t execute well enough to procure victory from a back-and-forth basketball game.
Maybe Thursday night’s 63-59 heartbreaker against Arizona State was just the latest in a frustratingly long line of those coulda-woulda-shouldas.
Or, maybe it’s just an example of what happens when the best player on the floor starts making plays. And doesn’t stop.
Jahii Carson, ASU’s ultra-quick freshman point guard, scored 21 of his game-high 25 points in the second half, including two crucial baskets in the final 1:33 to lift the Sun Devils past the Cougars before 4,728 at Beasley Coliseum.
“He did a good job all game long, but the second half, especially at the end of the game, he really took over,” said WSU coach Ken Bone. “I think he made six of his last seven attempts, and we just couldn’t stop him.”
Thing is, this was a tightly contested affair despite Carson’s second-half dominance. WSU led, 51-50, with 5 minutes remaining, before Carrick Felix sandwiched a pair of 3-pointers around a Carson floater to put ASU ahead 58-51 with 3:34 remaining.
Those kinds of runs are usually what deflate the Cougars in these kinds of games. But not Thursday. WSU stormed right back, using a 3-pointer and a driving layup by Royce Woolridge to tie the score at 58-58 with 2:05 remaining.
ASU even missed its next shot. But after Brock Motum grabbed the rebound, he fell to the ground – those in attendance might argue he was fouled by Felix, who joined him on the floor – and after Felix retrieved the ball and flipped it to Carson, the ASU guard slashed to the hoop and scored while being fouled.
He made the free throw, and ASU led 61-58 with 1:33 to play.
“From my view, I thought he got pushed, but maybe I didn’t see it right,” Bone said. “The officials were a lot closer to that than I was.”
Motum actually was fouled on WSU’s next possession, and he made one free throw to trim ASU’s lead to two.
The Cougars fouled Carson with 1:01 to play. He missed both free throws. ASU’s Justin Gilling grabbed the rebound, but Gilling was tied up, a jump ball was called and the possession arrow favored WSU.
With a chance to tie, Mike Ladd attempted a jump shot from just beyond the free-throw line. He missed, and the Sun Devils rebounded with 45 seconds to play.
WSU (11-10, 2-6 Pac-12) chose to play defense instead of foul. That meant it was Carson time. He dribbled by himself in the corner near the midcourt line, using most of the shot clock before starting his motion toward the basket.
Dexter Kernich-Drew guarded him. He spotted an ASU player coming over to set a screen and prepared to switch.
Then, whoosh. Carson blew right past Kernich-Drew, laid the ball in with 11.3 seconds left, and WSU misfired three times after calling a timeout.
“I got caught napping a little bit,” said Kernich-Drew, who scored 10 points. “And he basically just made a shot.”
WSU tried to play a few steps off Carson for most of the game – he entered the game shooting 27 percent from the 3-point line – and that tactic worked for a half, as he made only 2 of his 8 shot attempts.
That didn’t last. Carson missed only 3 of his 11 second-half field-goal attempts, and made 2 of 3 from beyond the arc.
The Sun Devils (17-4, 6-2) made only 11 of their 31 3-point attempts, and went nearly 7 minutes without scoring in a sluggish first half.
WSU’s largest lead was 13-4, but the Cougars’ own offensive woes prevented them from building a bigger margin. They shot just 39.6 percent from the field despite making seven of their first 14 3-point attempts. Leading scorer Brock Motum was held to 11 points on 3-for-13 shooting, though Woolridge led the team with 16 points and four assists.
It was enough to keep his team in the game. Just not enough to offset the Carson effect.
“He played well,” Woolridge said. “I tip my hat to him. He did a great job in the second half.”