FULLERTON, Calif. – In less than 24 hours, Washington State went from playing another game of catch-up to dictating down the stretch against a ranked team.
Malachi Flynn scored 26 points and the Cougars held off No. 21 Saint Mary’s 84-79 to reach the title game of the Wooden Legacy on Friday.
In the opening round, Flynn hit a go-ahead 3-pointer with 5 seconds remaining to seal a 75-71 win against Saint Joseph’s after the Cougars rallied from 20 points down.
This time, the Cougars were the ones putting the Gaels (5-1) in a 16-point hole in the second half, and they stayed cool when Saint Mary’s got within three on a 3-pointer by Jordan Ford with 47 seconds left.
Robert Franks and Jeff Pollard made layups to preserve the win for the Cougars (5-0), who will play the winner of Friday’s Georgia-San Diego State game on Sunday at 9 p.m. (ESPN2) for the championship.
“It was a 10:30 a.m. game, not too many people in the crowd, and we had to come out first and hit them with a lot of energy,” Flynn said.
Cougars coach Ernie Kent added, “On an off-day, college students usually sleep until 2.”
Washington State led 42-40 at halftime, just its second lead at the break this season. On the strength of 62 percent shooting, they outscored Saint Mary’s 42-39 in the second half just as they’ve done in every game so far.
“We continue to grow up a little bit with each challenge,” Kent said. “We’re already better than when we got on the plane to come here. The bigger the challenge, the bigger the stage, the more they rise up.”
Saint Mary’s opened the second half on a 10-4 spurt before Flynn’s basket tied it at 50-all. He followed with a 3-pointer that gave the Cougars the lead for good. He came up one point short of tying his career high.
The Gaels got to 65-61 on a basket by Jock Landale before the Cougars went on a 13-1 run. Kwinton Hinson had five points and Flynn added eight to extend Washington State’s lead to 78-62.
Saint Mary’s rallied on back-to-back 3-pointers by Calvin Hermanson that cut its deficit to 10. Evan Fitzner’s layup got the Gaels within six, leaving them to foul in the final minute.
“It’s probably one of our worst games of the year defensively,” Hermanson said. “We just got to be tougher and not let guys beat us.”
Emmett Naar scored 17 points for Saint Mary’s, which will play in the third-place game on Sunday. Fellow Aussie Landale added 14 points and nine rebounds while playing with three fouls. Ford finished with a career-high 15 points and Hermanson had 14.
“It’s simple, we didn’t guard anywhere close to well enough to beat a team like Washington State,” Gaels coach Randy Bennett said. “That’s been our Achilles’ heel thus far.”
Streak busted: Saint Mary shot 52 percent but its 64-game winning streak when shooting at least 50 percent from the floor ended. On the defensive side, the Gaels allowed Washington State to shoot 59 percent from the floor, just the seventh time since the start of the 2015-16 season that an opponent has topped 50 percent against them.
Reppin’ the Pac-12: For the fifth time, a Pac-12 team will play for the title. The league is 4-0 in the event. Washington State will try to join previous conference winners Southern California, California, Washington and UCLA.
Big picture: Saint Mary’s never led by more than six and had three players in foul trouble as the Gaels’ five-game winning streak ended.
Washington State has been living on the edge, digging itself big holes in the first half of games only to rally in the second half. But the Cougars grew up in less than 24 hours. They led Saint Mary’s by 2 at halftime and played with poise down the stretch.
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