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First-half drought costs Washington State in 77-70 loss to Utah

UPDATED: Sun., Feb. 18, 2018, 11 a.m.

Utah guard Justin Bibbins passes as Washington State guard Viont'e Daniels (4) looks on in the first half of an NCAA college basketball game, Saturday, Feb. 17, 2018, in Pullman, Wash. (Ted S. Warren / Associated Press)
Utah guard Justin Bibbins passes as Washington State guard Viont'e Daniels (4) looks on in the first half of an NCAA college basketball game, Saturday, Feb. 17, 2018, in Pullman, Wash. (Ted S. Warren / Associated Press)

PULLMAN – They enjoyed the splendors of winning basketball for a few days, but Saturday’s game against Utah brought the Washington State Cougars much of the same misfortune they’ve experienced in year No. 4 of Ernie Kent ball.

There were the extended scoring droughts, the defensive brain lapses and the costly turnovers. WSU played gritty basketball down the stretch, but the Cougars also fouled too much and once again, they largely found it difficult to get anyone other than No. 3 or No. 22 on the score sheet.

Malachi Flynn scored 20 points, Robert Franks chipped in 18, but the other nine Cougars combined to score just 32 in a 77-70 loss to the Utes in front of 2,924 at Beasley Coliseum. The loss, which comes two days after WSU’s second Pac-12 win, drops the Cougars to 10-16 overall and 2-12 in the Pac-12.

An optimist might say it was one of their more attractive losses.

And it’s true. The Cougars were able to mitigate the damage after trailing by as many as 20 points with 5:52 to play in the first half. For a six-minute, 13-second span, WSU might as well have been casting shots at a covered bucket. The Cougars clanked eight consecutive shots and went scoreless until Franks finally broke up a 17-0 Utes run from the foul line, then stopped the field goal drought with a 3-pointer on the next possession.

Still, the Cougars trudged into the locker room with a 38-28 deficit – the fourth straight game they failed to exceed 30 points in the opening half – and it proved fatal in a game that was winnable for either team in the final five minutes.

“We don’t get ourselves into that groove early on,” Kent said. “And for whatever reason, that sense of urgency hits, here we come now. And if I could figure that out and put it in a bottle, boy I would make a lot of money, because I’d sell that to a lot of coaches. Why young kids tend to need a sense of urgency before they get their motors moving. And it’s cost us.”

Steven Shpreyregin, the former walk-on-turned-scholarship guard, knocked down his second 3-pointer with 8:57 left in the second half to make it a single-digit game – Utes 53, Cougars 44 – for the first time since the 9:40 mark of the first half.

But almost every sign of WSU progress was followed by a setback.

Arinze Chidom was whistled for a reach-in foul on Utah’s Justin Bibbins and the WSU forward drew a technical foul when he argued the call. Bibbins collected four Utah points at the free throw line to extend the Utes’ lead back to 13 points.

“It was a big four-point swing in a close game and it was immature,” Chidom said. “I’ve just got to do better next time to keep my composure.”

Added Kent of the sequence: “It was just a terrible time to have it with all the momentum coming back, but I had to have a parenting moment with him because he’s never been in that situation before and he lost his composure.”

Though the Cougars weren’t done just yet. Franks, Flynn and Viont’e Daniels combined on the next 22 WSU points to make it a four-point game with 1:43 to play, but instead of trimming the deficit to two points, the Cougars were called for an offensive charge when Flynn shrugged off Bibbins. The Utah guard then finessed a high layup off the glass to seal the game with 26 seconds left.

“We thought we had it,” said Flynn, who has scored 50 points in the past two games. “You can’t hang your hat on it, because we’ve got to move onto the next one. We’ve got Cal and Stanford, so we’ve just got to go take care of business.”

Bibbins led the visitors with 24 points, converting all eight of his attempts from the free throw line. Gabe Bealer made 6 of 12 threes and scored another 17 points for the hot-shooting Utes, who combined to go 12-of-31 from deep, and 8-of-15 in the first half. Tyler Rawson, who torched WSU for six threes in Salt Lake City, added three more Saturday and totaled 15 points.

Daniels pitched in 14 points for WSU, but his offensive aid didn’t come until late. The junior guard made his first bucket with 6:52 to play and converted each of his last five shots.

For the second straight game, the Cougars got next to nothing from 3-point specialist Carter Skaggs, who went 0-for-6 from beyond the arc, making him 0-for-12 in the last two games.

“He’s a shooter, that’s what he does,” Flynn said. “We’re always going to have confidence in him, we tell him to shoot every time he misses it. Eventually, it’s going to fall. That’s what he does.”

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