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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Cougars keep up with Colorado, except at free-throw line

Washington State’s Ike Iroegbu, right, powered for 27 points against Colorado. (Young Kwak / Associated Press)
Washington State’s Ike Iroegbu, right, powered for 27 points against Colorado. (Young Kwak / Associated Press)

PULLMAN – Just two days after a performance that was universally derided as “soft” by the participants, Washington State matched one of the Pac-12’s toughest teams physically and mentally.

The Cougars showed grit in coming back from a sizable deficit and still managed to cut at Colorado when their most effective post player, Conor Clifford, ran into foul trouble just as he heated up.

The home team took care of the hard stuff on Saturday but was again undone by the freebies, losing to the Buffaloes 75-70 thanks entirely to 11 missed free throws.

WSU (9-10, 1-6 Pac-12) struggled similarly at the line during its overtime loss to Washington. Now the Cougars must head to Los Angeles with the prospect of winning just one game during the first half of conference play hanging over their heads.

Ike Iroegbu followed one of his worst performances of the season with one of the best of his career, finishing with 27 points, one shy of his career high. The junior guard did most of his damage around the basket, although he hit a long 3-pointer with the shot clock winding down to tie the game at 53, finishing a 13-point WSU comeback.

The Cougars briefly took a lead after Iroegbu’s shot, but trailed 71-68 after Josh Hawkinson buried a deep two-pointer with 23 seconds left in the game. WSU fouled CU’s Xavier Talton, who made both free throws.

The Cougars advanced the ball to midcourt and called timeout, drawing up a play for Iroegbu to catch the ball in rhythm and fire off an attempt at a game-tying 3-pointer. WSU head coach Ernie Kent said that with 19 seconds left, he would also have accepted a drive to the basket in hopes of forcing the Buffaloes to hit more free throws.

CU disrupted WSU’s inbounds play. When Iroegbu finally got the ball, too much time had run off the clock for the Cougars to keep playing the foul game. Iroegbu rocked his defender back and forth to take additional time off the clock, but was well defended, and his 3-point attempt badly missed the rim.

“I have to step up and do it for my team, so that just comes with being a captain ad being a leader of this team,” Iroegbu said. “Even if the play breaks down, I still want the ball in my hands when the clock’s ticking down like that. I’ve just got to make the shot.”

The Cougars underwent a 5:23 scoring drought in that first half, only made one 3-pointer and forced just one Buffaloes turnover. Ultimately, it was the missed free throws that kept WSU from hanging with CU during the first 20 minutes.

The Cougars made just 5 of 12 first-half free-throw attempts, including three misses on the first free throw during 1-and-1 situations. The Cougars shot 16 of 27 at the line.

Conor Clifford did not start the game, as Kent chose to go with a more veteran lineup to improve communication on the floor. But Clifford got the best of his matchup against CU’s Josh Scott, the Pac-12’s second-leading scorer, finishing with 18 points to Scott’s 11 and making 8 of 9 shots.

“I felt like on Thursday we were mentally out of the game and physically out of the game,” Kent said. “Today we were mentally into the game and physically into the game. We didn’t manhandle Colorado. We just did our assignments.”

Clifford hits buckets on first two possessions of second half but picked up first two fouls as well. At 17:15 he picked up his third foul and had to sit.

Brett Boese and Que Johnson played in his absence to continue chipping away at CU’s lead. Johnson’s eight rebounds were a career high against conference opponents.

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