BERKELEY, Calif. – This was a new twist to the 2017-18 Washington State basketball season: The Cougars go on the road, lose a key scorer due to injury and escape with the win anyway.
They did it the hard way Thursday night at Haas Pavilion in Berkeley. Carter Skaggs reinjured his ankle in the first half and was unavailable to the Cougars in the second, forcing others to supply the offense in a gritty 78-76 win over the California Golden Bears.
A few of the regulars stepped forward: Robert Franks led the bunch with 15 points, Malachi Flynn chipped in 14 and Viont’e Daniels contributed 14 more. But they weren’t the only sources. Graduate transfer forward Drick Bernstine scored a season-high 14 points – none bigger than the final two, which came with 2 seconds on the clock and just after Cal’s Marcus Lee tied the game at the other end.
Lee’s layup fell to make it 76-all with 7 seconds left and the Cougs, always in a hurry to get to the other end, raced down the floor to set up their final look.
In Bernstine’s words: “I just took off running.”
Franks inbounded to Flynn, Flynn dribbled until he saw another crimson jersey and whipped a pass to a Bernstine, who laid the ball off the glass to seal WSU’s first true road win of the season. A last-ditch heave from Cal came after the final buzzer sounded.
“Coach always walks us through late-game situations, so I think we were really prepared for it,” Bernstine said. “Honestly, I saw the bigs both crash after he made the layup and they were way out of position. … Malachi made the right play and we ended up winning the game off of it.”
Flynn was an assist machine for the Cougars, dishing out six on the night, but he also buried one of the game’s critical shots – and buried a sour memory at the same time. Cal led 74-73 when the sophomore point guard rose up and swished a 3-pointer from the left wing to put WSU in front with 27 seconds left.
In the same venue last season, Flynn clanked a similiar shot when the Cougars could’ve used it. They trudged out of Haas Pavilion 22 seconds later with a four-point loss.
“That’s the growth from freshman to sophomore year that now, this time, he makes that shot,” WSU coach Ernie Kent said. “And it was huge.”
WSU improved to 11-16 overall and 3-12 in Pac-12 play with the win, holding onto 11th place in the conference standings with three games left. Cal fell to 8-20 and 2-13, moving one full game below the Cougars.
“For this team, everything it’s gone through … to come down here and play a much better, much improved Cal team from what we played the first time, it was just a grind it out win for us,” Kent said. “I’m proud of my guys.”
Cal held WSU without a field goal for nearly four minutes to start the game, but Skaggs collected his rebound, converted a putback and offense came easy to the Cougars after that. They staged a 16-3 run to take a 19-13 lead and held a 38-36 lead at the break.
Bernstine, who’d scored in double digits just five times this season, was up to 10 points in no time at all. WSU’s pace disrupted Cal’s defensive rotations and three times in the first half, the Golden Bears were no better than statues, stuck in cement as Bernstine rolled to the hoop for uncontested layins.
“That’s because of our 3-point shooting,” Bernstine said. “When you have so many 3-point shooters on the floor, it’s hard for them to come off of them. So when get in pick-and-roll, it’s kind of easy for me to just come down the lane and score, but that’s a lot of credit to the shooters. That’s not really me.”
But Bernstine’s pawprint on the game was much larger than he’d let on.
He hauled down a team-high seven rebounds, dished out two assists and had one steal. The North Dakota transfer has been hamstrung by injury much of the season – part of the reason he’s scored just 22 points over the last six games – and Thursday was as good a time as any to rediscover his form.
Bernstine’s father and scores of extended relatives were in the audience.
“It’s really important to me, it’s crazy how God blesses you in times like this,” he said.
Milan Acquaah was responsible for another important Cougar surge late in the game. The redshirt freshman guard bulled his way to the basket on three different possessions, not converting on any, but earning three visits to the foul line and four Cougar points. Acquaah also hit a 3 that gave WSU the lead back with under five minutes to go.
Before Skaggs hobbled to the visitor’s locker room, the sophomore – with a mix of midrange jumpers, breakaway dunks and putbacks – was the Cougars’ second-leading scorer with nine points. Skaggs, who’d missed his last 15 3-point shots dating back to the game at Oregon, also broke out of that drought with a contested step-back 3-pointer in the first half.
Kent didn’t seem concerned about Skaggs’ injury becoming a long-term issue.
“He turned it about two weeks ago and came back from it pretty quick,” the coach said. “… As I told him: I’m from Illinois, he’s from Indiana. I know I’m tough, so he’s got to come back. He’s got to be ready to play on Saturday.”
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