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Cougars rise to challenges, sweep Arizona State

Washington State center Conor Clifford celibrates in the second half of an NCAA college basketball game on Saturday, Feb. 18, 2017, in Pullman. (Ted S. Warren / Associated Press)
Washington State center Conor Clifford celibrates in the second half of an NCAA college basketball game on Saturday, Feb. 18, 2017, in Pullman. (Ted S. Warren / Associated Press)

PULLMAN – Ernie Kent issued a challenge to his players after Washington State’s loss to Arizona on Thursday to make the most of what chances they had left.

On Saturday the Cougars met that challenge and many more, making good on many opportunities both as a group and as individuals in an 86-71 win over visiting Arizona State.

To start, WSU (12-15, 5-10 Pac-12) ended a five-game losing streak by outscoring the Sun Devils 43-22 in the second half. With 8:35 left in the game, ASU held a 66-62 lead. The Cougars then embarked on a 19-3 run that took six minutes off the clock and turned a tentative game into a rout.

“This team has never been a team that has quit,” Kent said. “Sometimes we’ve gotten off track and had to reel it back in. I can’t say enough about how they responded to the challenge I put in front of them – what I would call the ‘parenting moment’ in all of this – of understanding how to win, to take responsibility for all the mental stuff, and just the bigger picture beyond Washington State.”

A crowd of 3,344 bolstered the Cougars, one that included what appeared to be the largest student section this season.

“I thought the students were outstanding,” Kent added. “There’s no way we close out on that type of run without the energy you felt in this building.”

Conor Clifford had been tested by Kent in recent games, playing just 13 minutes against Colorado and Arizona. But with scouts on hand from both a Japanese club team and the Japanese national team, Clifford made 9 of 12 shots to lead the Cougars with 19 points.

Clifford’s mother is Japanese, so he would not count against a Japanese team’s limits on foreign players. And playing for the national team is an especially big opportunity since Japan will host the 2020 Olympics.

“As far as stuff beyond the season, not even a thought,” Clifford said. “We’re thinking about the next game. Big game coming up, especially with a rival game we’re focusing all our energy on this next week and prepping for that.”

Forward Josh Hawkinson finally slayed a giant that he’s battled for four years. The senior forward had 14 points and 15 rebounds, giving him 54 double-doubles in his career. No other WSU player has collected so many.

“What’s crazy is he did it in three years,” teammate and roommate Ike Iroegbu said. “To be honest, freshman year he didn’t play that much. I knew how good he was. He was always in the gym late at night and we’d play 1-on-1.”

Iroegbu nearly upstaged Hawkinson as he was close to recording his first triple-double, scoring 17 points, collecting eight rebounds and dishing out seven assists. Iroegbu made 3 of 6 3-point attempts.

It was hot outside-shooting that kept the Cougars in the game long enough to make their big second-half run. ASU led 49-43 at halftime, and the margin would have been bigger but the Cougars made 6 of 11 first-half 3-point attempts.

Kent was speaking to those three players more than any other Cougars on Thursday when he publicly reminded the team how little time it has left, and implored them to play with urgency and pride in their remaining games.

WSU’s win gives it two wins over ASU (13-15, 6-9) this season, the first sweep of a Pac-12 rival in five years. The Cougars can get another one next week when they host Washington.

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