The Washington State men’s basketball team made a stunning turnaround in its second shot at Utah. But coming close is less satisfying than it was in previous weeks.
The Cougars lost to the Utes 74-70, which was a staggering improvement from their 88-47 loss in Pullman three weeks ago. WSU had the lead with just more than 3 minutes left in the game and perhaps should have tied it with 23 seconds left.
But as they have against so many opponents that appeared vastly superior on paper this season, the Cougars fell short in the final minutes.
“We’ve improved, but that’s not why I’m here,” WSU coach Ernie Kent told Matt Chazanow on the IMG postgame radio show. “To break that losing mentality you’ve got to be mentally and physically tough on the road. We’ve got to keep on pushing.”
Three long, multiminute scoring droughts cost the Cougars from coasting to a win. The first came late in the first half, after the Cougars amassed a 19-9 lead then watched the Utes go on a 15-4 run.
The next dry spell for WSU (11-13, 4-8 Pac-12) came early in the second half, when a three-point deficit ballooned into an 11-point hole. And finally, when the Cougars had clawed their way back at the end of the game, WSU again found it difficult to put the ball in the bucket. Charles Callison made a 3-pointer with 3:34 left in the game to put the Cougars up 65-62, but the Cougars didn’t make another field goal until there was 23 seconds left.
That bucket by Ike Iroegbu would have tied the game at 71, but the 3-pointer Iroegbu thought he was shooting was in fact just inside the line, giving the Utes the ball and the lead.
“It’s the little things mentally that you break down on that cost us,” Kent said. “Yes, I’m proud of them. I was proud of them to come back out here and play in this environment. But we had a chance to close out the game.”
Utah (16-8, 7-5) badly needed the win, having lost three of four games entering Thursday’s game and having dropped from a surefire NCAA tournament participant to firmly on the fringe.
WSU was able to hang with their former bullies thanks to some key contributions from its bench. Keith Langston played just 7 minutes as a reserve guard but hit a big 3-pointer.
Jeff Pollard, who played during the crucial final minutes once Conor Clifford fouled out, made a layup and drew two offensive charges.
“I feel like our bench is starting to give us something and we need to get them more minutes,” Kent told Chazanow. Kent added that he wants the starters to request substitutions when they become tired because he felt they made mental mistakes at the end of the game due to fatigue.
Next the Cougars will try to complete a sweep of Colorado when they face the Buffaloes in Boulder on Sunday at 5:30 p.m. WSU beat the Buffaloes 91-89 in overtime earlier this season.
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