PULLMAN – Ernie Kent made a major shakeup to his lineup before his Washington State Cougars lined up opposite of the country’s ninth-ranked basketball team Wednesday night. He yanked sophomore guard Malachi Flynn from the starting five, ending a 51-game run that dated back to Flynn’s debut in a crimson uniform.
It was worth a try.
Kent probably needed to do something drastic in order to have a chance against the longtime Pac-12 heavyweight. The WSU coach may have been better off inserting metal springs into the sneakers of any Cougar guarding Arizona wunderkind Deandre Ayton.
On a night when it seemed he was destined to jump out of the building at some point, the vertically-gifted freshman managed a first-half double-double and proceeded to score 25 points and grab 11 rebounds in a 100-72 rout of the Cougars at Beasley Coliseum.
“I don’t know if any of you ever get the opportunity … maybe they’ve got a Disneyland cutout of Shaq,” Kent said. “If you ever run into Shaq, go up alongside of him and then you’ll understand what it was like guarding (Ayton). Because that is a big individual. He’s not just tall, his arms are so long and then he’s got the athleticism.”
WSU posted season-high attendance numbers (4,607) – probably more indicative of Sean Miller and his band arriving in Pullman for their only visit of the season than anything else. Everyone wanted to see the No. 9 Wildcats and for much of Wednesday’s contest it felt like the Cougars, too, were just there spectating.
They watched Ayton repeatedly lift his chiseled 7-foot-1 frame into the air and spike down dunks. There were six of them – a mixed basket of two-handed jams, aggressive putbacks and soaring alley-oops. They watched Allonzo Trier dance through swarms of white shirts and finish at the hoop with scoop lay-ups, right up until the preseason All-American checked out of the game 24 points later. They watched sophomore guard Rawle Alkins return from a foot injury and line up four 3-pointers on four 3-point attempts – and score another 16 points.
“They’ve got size all over the court, they’ve got big wings that can score,” Kent said. “Alkins makes them so much better and we had our hands full. … They were not a team we were going to shut down. We needed to score, and score with them.”
The Cougars were able to do that for nearly 11 minutes and largely without help of Flynn, who’s been the conductor of Kent’s run-and-gun offense since he arrived at WSU from Tacoma’s Bellarmine Prep last season.
The sophomore’s omission from the starting unit “is between me and him,” Kent said, but the coach admitted Flynn “responded extremely well.”
Kent anticipates Flynn will return to the starting five for Sunday’s game against Arizona State.
When Flynn finally came into the game, the Cougars were still in a dead heat with the Pac-12 frontrunners and Carter Skaggs’ corner 3 tied the score at 20-20. What ensued was a 5-minute scoreless stretch from the Cougars, combined with 13 consecutive points from the Wildcats.
A layup from Milan Acquaah ended the WSU skid, but Alkins then buried his third consecutive 3 and perhaps buried the Cougars in the process.
“We just couldn’t recover from that,” WSU forward Robert Franks said. “I feel like that was the turning point in the game.”
UA’s lead ballooned from 17 points to 25 in the second half when WSU went 3:27 without scoring and the Wildcats extended it to as many as 35 points, up 75-42 with 12:27 left.
Arizona’s height advantage was evident for 40 minutes. With the 7-1 Ayton and his 7-foot sidekick, Dusan Ristic, the Wildcats outrebounded the Cougars 42-23. Ristic was their fourth double-digit scorer, with 12 points. UA shot 61 percent from the field and had 52 points in the paint. WSU shot 41 percent and scored just 22 points inside.
Franks was the high scorer for the Cougars, with 25 points on 5-of-7 shooting from the three-point line. Off the bench, Flynn chipped in 11 points and a career-high 11 assists.
WSU came into the game third nationally in 3-pointers per game and broke the school record for 3’s in a single season with 241. And the Cougars still have at least 10 games to play.
“It says a lot about our shooting, but it doesn’t really matter if you don’t get wins behind it,” Franks said. “So we just brush that aside and try to look forward to getting a win every game.”
The loss drops the Cougars to 9-12 overall and 1-8 in the Pac-12. They’ve now lost 12 of their last 15 games and have another ranked opponent, the 25th-ranked Sun Devils, on deck.
“It’s still very important that we get wins out of this team,” Kent said. “That they learn how to handle themselves. We tinkered with the lineup. We’ll tinker with it again if need be to keep the interest up, to keep the enery where we need to keep it, to keep the focus where we need to keep it.”
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