PULLMAN – Washington State students were still filing back onto campus from holiday vacations when the Cougars and Huskies tipped off at Beasley Coliseum Saturday afternoon to renew a basketball rivalry that lately has been much less one-sided than the one that’s played on football turf in late November.
For large portions of Saturday’s game, the Evergreen State nemeses also looked like they’d just returned from extended breaks away from their craft.
Washington committed 17 turnovers and made just 2-of-12 3-pointers, but the Huskies managed the damage control better than the Cougars, who turned it over a whopping 23 times and, both literally and figuratively, came up just short in a 70-65 loss played in front of the largest Beasley crowd (3,477) this season.
Robert Franks short-armed a close-range jumper with 51 seconds left, Jaylen Nowell converted a floater on the other end and Franks watched a potential game-tying 3-pointer clank off the front lip of the rim with 10 seconds left, burying WSU’s chances.
“There came a point in time in the game where we needed to dig our heels in and make plays,” coach Ernie Kent said. “Tough plays. Defensive stops. And we were not able to get it done.”
The Cougars (8-7, 0-3) didn’t make the tough plays and they were especially faulty when it seemed like the Huskies (12-4, 2-1) were handing them the game. Redshirt freshman guard Milan Acquaah missed consecutive free throws with 1:24 left when sinking both would’ve meant a 67-66 lead.
And there wasn’t a defender within arms’ reach when Franks, a 17.6 points-per-game scorer, uncorked his final shots.
“Today we were lucky,” first-year UW coach Mike Hopkins said. “They got a good look at the end, but for the most part I thought our defense was incredible.”
WSU, which has now lost seven of nine games since winning the Wooden Legacy tournament, held a 10-point lead with 14:56 to play. The Huskies did the Cougars another favor when center Noah Dickerson picked up his third, fourth and fifth fouls in a two-minute span later in the half. UW played the final 8:09 without its high-scoring big man.
“There were just a couple of times on that floor where it was just too easy,” Kent said. “How easy they got to the bucket on us and took that lead, took the momentum, took the toughness away from us in the game.”
Kent would also contend the Cougars never should’ve been in so many dire moments late in the game.
He’d point to his team’s 14 first-half turnovers – most of which were unforced errors that caused the Cougars to go into halftime leading by only three points.
“It would’ve been nice,” Kent said, “for 10 of them to be shots instead of turning the ball over like we did.”
The Cougars compensated by pounding the offensive boards – they won that column handily (17-4) – and sprawling onto the floor to snap up loose balls. Most of the game, they were able to match UW on the offensive end despite sinking just four 3’s, nine below their season average.
“We gave all the effort, this is a rivalry game,” guard Viont’e Daniels said. “We were up 10 and I think once we got up, that effort slipped which is why the lead slipped. So we’ve just got to continue working on doing it for 40 minutes instead of just in spurts.”
But effort didn’t translate to execution. After holding the Huskies to 12-of-32 from the field in the first half, WSU sputtered on defense much of the second, and a variety of Huskies found it easy to slash through the lane and finish easy layups at the rim.
“We give up a 10-point lead and it’s like layup city at the basket,” Kent said. “We go zone, it’s still layups.”
UW shot 17-of-23 from the field, or 73.9 percent, in the second half.
“They didn’t shoot any 3’s really,” Daniels noted. “… When you’re shooting shots a few feet from the bucket, you’re going to shoot a high percentage.”
Five Huskies finished in double figures: Matisse Thybulle (17 points), Nowell (15), David Crisp (15), Dickerson (11) and Carlos Johnson (10).
Franks led all scorers with 22 points and chipped in three blocked shots. Daniels scored 13 and Drick Bernstine, before fouling out, had another 10.
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