BERKELEY, Calif. – For the third time this season, the Washington State basketball team showed the talent and skill to build a lead on the road against a Pac-12 team. And for the third time this season the Cougars lacked the depth to sustain it, falling 76-55 at California on Saturday.
The difference in the game occurred exclusively in the second half. The Cougars (8-10, 1-5 Pac-12) built a moderate lead early and trailed just 34-33 at halftime. But just like Stanford and Arizona State before them, Cal (14-4, 5-0) was able to wreak havoc in the second half, taking advantage of a depleted WSU offense that routinely goes three or four minutes without scoring.
“Right now sometimes we drop off a little bit. If we’ve got to put certain guys in or certain combinations we drop off in our opportunities or chances to score,” WSU coach Ken Bone said. “I don’t think we drop off as much defensively or rebounding-wise but we need certain guys on the court to be able to score.”
Such was the case in the middle of the first half when the Cal went on a 14-0 run to turn an 18-10 WSU lead into a 24-18 deficit. The Cougars shot 40 percent in the first half, but hit just 6 of 22 shots in the second half while Cal cruised to victory in front of 9,348 at Haas Pavilion.
The Golden Bears were led by point guard Justin Cobbs, who had 16 points to go with seven assists. Hyped freshman Jabari Bird, playing in his second game since returning from an ankle sprain, scored just four points. The five-star prospect spent much of the game visibly frustrated at his lack of scoring opportunities.
The Cougars have not been helped by an early Pac-12 schedule that has seen them play just one of their first six games in Pullman. While WSU players deny that they’re road-weary, they are averaging 4.2 fewer points in the second half against Pac-12 teams away from Pullman. Their opponents in those games, however, see their average production increase by 10.2 points after halftime.
But in their lone home game against Utah, the Cougars scored 30 points in the second half to 19 in the first half, while holding the Utes to just 22 in the second half after 24 in the first.
WSU’s struggles on offense can lead to easy transition buckets for the opposition. Such was the case against Cal, which outscored the Cougars 21-9 off turnovers.
“They’re a great transition team. If we made a mistake on offense, a quick shot or a turnover, they quickly took advantage of it and scored quickly,” guard Royce Woolridge said. “I mean they went on really quick runs off of our turnovers so they did a good job in transition.”
Offensive success for the Cougars came at the free throw line. WSU has struggled to draw fouls of late, attempting just three foul shots against Colorado and five against Stanford on Wednesday. But the Cougars shot 22 on Saturday against Cal and made 18 of them.
The majority came from Que Johnson, who led all scorers with 18 points and made 8 of his 9 free-throw attempts. D.J. Shelton hit 7 of 8 and put up 17 points to go with 11 rebounds. It was Shelton’s fifth career double-double and fourth this season.
The Cougars outrebounded the Golden Bears 31-25, with most of the difference coming in the first half.
“I was proud,” Shelton said. “As a team we had a lot of guys flying in. Jordan (Railey) had a great game and was active on the glass so I was proud to see him doing that. “
The flip side to playing so many consecutive road games is that the Cougars now enter a stretch with three straight games in Pullman. The Cougars won’t hit the road again until Feb. 5 at Colorado and can hope their problems offensively will be mitigated somewhat in Beasley Coliseum’s friendly confines while they await the return of leading scorer DaVonte Lacy.
“We can’t wait to get home,” Bone said. “We’re 1-5 but we’re 1-0 on our home court. Everybody would rather play at home and now we’ll get our opportunity.”