PULLMAN – With only one real home game in its first six Pac-12 contests, the Washington State men’s basketball team was in a must-win situation on Sunday evening against Utah. It came down to the final shot but the Cougars pulled off the victory, beating the Utes, 49-46, for their first Pac-12 win.
“When you only have one game in Beasley, your home court, out of your first six, you better win it because it doesn’t get any easier,” coach Ken Bone said.
Utah (12-4, 1-3 Pac-12) had a chance to tie the game at the end of regulation. Up three with 4 seconds left on the clock, the Cougars fouled Utah’s Delon Wright to prevent the Utes from attempting a 3-pointer.
“Whoever got the ball past halfcourt, just foul,” forward D.J. Shelton said. WSU doesn’t always foul in that situation, but will “more often than not” if there are 6 or fewer seconds left on the clock.
After Wright missed the first free throw, he intentionally missed the second and the Utes secured the offensive rebound. Brandon Taylor took an open 3-pointer, but it fell short, giving WSU (8-8, 1-3) the win.
It was an important win for the Cougars, who nearly upset No. 15 Colorado on Wednesday in Spokane, but fell, 71-70, in overtime. While the Cougars may not have won that game, it was a reassuring performance after a pair of blowouts to the Arizona schools in the first week of conference play.
“That was kind of our wakeup call that when we execute and play hard we can beat anybody,” forward Junior Longrus said.
In the Colorado game, WSU competed thanks to some hot outside shooting and a 24-point performance from Dexter Kernich-Drew.
That offense was nowhere to be found on Sunday, as the Cougars made just 2 of 7 3-pointers and shot just 37.5 percent. The Cougars didn’t shoot well from the free-throw line, either, but what they lacked in efficiency they made up for in volume, hitting 17 of 28 attempts.
WSU’s 49 points were the fewest in a win since a 43-38 victory over USC March 3, 2012. Kernich-Drew hit 5 of 6 shots for 11 points, while freshman Que Johnson led the team with 14, despite making just a pair of field goals.
Johnson was 10 of 13 at the free-throw line; his teammates were just 7 of 15. With leading scorer DaVonte Lacy out indefinitely, Johnson is being counted on to provide points for WSU’s struggling offense.
Prior to Sunday’s game the most free throws Johnson had attempted for WSU was four in the second game of the season.
“I think he’ll continue to get a little more aggressive, game-in and game-out,” Bone said. “Because we’re talking to him about that every day. It’s just not his personality. There was a guy here a couple years ago named Klay Thompson. He shot 31 free throws his freshman year.”
While no one will yet mistake Johnson for the 2011 NBA lottery pick, his contributions were enough as the Cougars held Utah to 13 made field goals and 29.5 percent shooting. The team shifted to a more aggressive defense before the start of the season, and it has paid dividends of late.
“We just (had) to adjust and keep it tight so they don’t get driving lanes,” Shelton said. “I mean they shot pretty bad from 3 so we should have forced them to take more of those shots.”
The team has given up just over 60 points per game to Pac-12 teams and is averaging 5.8 steals per game.
The Cougars had a short bench on Sunday, playing four starters at least 34 minutes. While Jordan Railey – the team’s starting center – played just 6 minutes, his backup, Longrus, was in for 25.
“If we get opportunities in transition we want to push it,” Bone said. “Utah did a great job tonight of not allowing us to get many of those, and when we did were not very efficient. But we always want to push it in transition if we get the opportunity. Therefore the game was slow, and part of it had to do with the minutes the guys played.”
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