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Cougars humbled at Utah, 88-47

Utah forward Jakob Poeltl (42) goes to the basket for a dunk during the second half against Washington State on Sunday. (Rick Bowmer / Associated Press)
Utah forward Jakob Poeltl (42) goes to the basket for a dunk during the second half against Washington State on Sunday. (Rick Bowmer / Associated Press)

SALT LAKE CITY – As a little more of Brett Boese’s senior season swirled down the drain during Washington State’s most brutal loss since his elementary school days, the Shadle Park graduate provided an example to younger teammates of how to manufacture meaning when the possessions, and games, are largely inconsequential.

Boese is one of WSU’s two seniors, Junior Longrus being the other, so there is no solace to be granted in the knowledge that Utah’s 88-47 victory over the Cougars on Sunday may have provided some lessons that can be cashed in during later seasons.

But even though he and Longrus will graduate having never played in so much as a CBI game, to say nothing of March Madness or the NIT, Boese did the dirty work for 18 minutes in front of 11,464 fans who delighted in the Cougars’ sheer lack of competitiveness.

“I think it just comes down to your character as a person,” Boese said. “You’ve got to play hard every possession, no matter what the score is. In those situations it makes it hard, but you’ve just got to continue to play. There’s no way around it. You’ve just got to continue to play hard every possession.”

The Cougars (9-16, 1-12 Pac-12) had not lost by so wide a margin since 2004, when Oklahoma State pulverized WSU 81-29 in Stillwater. Coach Ernie Kent, recognizing that his team was emotionally drained by what is now an 11-game losing streak that included a double-overtime loss on Thursday and the effects of four days at high altitude, conceded the loss early in the game and put in his younger players.

Viont’e Daniels, a freshman from Federal Way, Washington, played 19 minutes, more than doubling his Pac-12 game experience. Fellow fresh-faced first-year player Robert Franks scored 10 points, one shy of his career high.

“Once the game was out of control, we wanted to get those young guys some time,” Kent said. “Particularly those young guys as we come down the stretch of the season we’ll look at playing them even more.”

The game was out of control so early because the Cougars simply could not defend the paint. Shot blocker Valentine Izundu fouled twice in the first two minutes, and did not play the rest of the half.

Kent attributed Izundu’s absence as much to overall rustiness as he works his way back from a foot injury as to his foul situation.

Regardless, the path to WSU’s basket was so open that Brigham Young would have had no trouble shepherding his disciples through it.

Utah (19-7, 8-7) scored 18 of its first 23 points in the paint, and center Jakob Poeltl looked every bit the NBA lottery pick while scoring 25 points in 25 minutes, making 11 of 14 attempts while collecting 10 rebounds, three steals and blocking a pair of shots.

“We tried a variety of things,” said WSU forward Josh Hawkinson. “Fronting, doubling and it just seemed like the help-side (defense) wasn’t there. That allowed them – especially Poeltl – to get easy layups inside.”

On offense, the Cougars were disjointed and error-prone, turning the ball over 20 times, leading to 26 of Utah’s points. Hawkinson has scored in double figures in 20 of WSU’s 25 games, but on Sunday he had just four points, tying his season low.

WSU heads into its final homestand of the season, next week against California and Stanford, having lost 11 consecutive games. Kent does not attribute any special significance to Sunday’s blowout loss and says, figuratively, that he will burn the tape.

He also says the Cougars still have something to play for by setting themselves up to win a Pac-12 tournament game. That would be something to celebrate – the Cougars have not won a conference tournament game since the 2009 team beat Kent’s Oregon Ducks.

But a team on this type of skid seems unlikely to figure out how to win against one of the Pac-12’s best teams when the conference tournament lands in Las Vegas, and WSU is running out of time to get out of its current malaise.

“We know who we are right now and were we need to get to,” Kent said. “So it isn’t about being bummed. This is a group of kids who want to play hard and win for their school, so it’s about moving on, getting it out of the way and getting ready for the next one.”

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