PULLMAN – It’s been a blessing for Washington State to only face Arizona one time during each of the past two seasons.
Whether the games are played in Tucson or Pullman the bigger, faster, more skilled Wildcats abused the Cougars even more than one would expect between a team firmly atop the top of the Pac-12 and one fighting for a spot in sight of the conference’s middle.
But once a year the Cougars must take their lumps against the Wildcats, and this year’s reckoning came on Sunday, when No. 7 Arizona shredded the Cougars for the entirety of its 86-59 win.
Drawn by two-for-one tickets and a “Gray Out” promotion the Cougars drew 5,331 fans, the largest crowd for a home game this season.
After the game, Ernie Kent listed two positives the Cougars could take away from the drubbing, the first of which was getting to see a team of Arizona’s caliber up close.
“For us to one day get there and be a championship program, they sure give you an idea of what it needs to look like and how it needs to play,” Kent said.
The game was a blowout from the beginning, as was last season’s 60-25 loss in Tucson. The story will ultimately not be the severity of WSU’s loss, however, but the manner in which the Cougars responded.
Ugly losses in the past have shaken this team in a way that could cost the Cougars dearly heading into games they should seemingly win against Washington and at USC, which will be crucial for Pac-12 tournament seeding.
The second positive Kent listed was the play of senior Dexter Kernich-Drew, who led the team in scoring for the third consecutive game. Kernich-Drew scored 20 points, marking his third consecutive game with at least 18, a figure he hadn’t reached all season prior to his recent binge.
He scored 17 points in the second half and had a stretch when he made four 3-pointers in 2:10.
“I’m happy that for the third game in a row he’s played with tremendous confidence,” Kent said. “He put up numbers tonight even though they were late in the game, the score had gotten away from us. I’m still proud of the way he did that.”
The Cougars also received a second-half boost from DaVonte Lacy, who scored one point in the first half and 17 in the second, peppering the same Wildcats defenders that had locked him up over the first 20 minutes.
The shooting uptick from those two guards allowed the Cougars to outscore the Wildcats in the second half, 40-33, which mostly illustrates how dominant Arizona was through the first 20 minutes.
When asked about his team’s second-half surge, Kent merely expressed his appreciation for Arizona coach Sean Miller taking his team’s feet off the Cougars’ throats, saying, “that’s a classy basketball coach.”
The Wildcats raced out to a 53-19 lead at the half and a 30-9 rebounding advantage.
Arizona’s three forwards got anything they wanted inside and Brandon Ashley, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Kaleb Tarczewski each scored 17 points. Ashley, a lanky 6-foot-9 post with guard-like quickness, was Arizona’s most dynamic player while Tarczewski and Hollis-Jefferson missed just one shot between them.
Miller said his posts “had one of their best nights. They scored, they rebounded, they were physical and very, very amped up.”
Not only were the forwards dangerous in their own right – all three are expected to have lucrative pro careers – but the skill of Arizona’s guards made it so WSU’s post defenders had less help than usual.
“You can’t rely on help, pretty much one-on-one in the post. (We’re) trying to front, but it’s hard for guards to be in help-side also just because they have good shooters like Gabe York and stuff on the opposite side ready to shoot the ball,” WSU center Jordan Railey said. “So it’s just a tough matchup overall. We got to play better and grind harder.”
After the game, Miller was effusive in his praise of WSU’s first-year coach, saying, “Ernie Kent is just doing an amazing job. The level he’s got them playing on offense; we were really, really worried coming into the game if we could guard them because they push it so fast.”
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