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Washington State halts Pac-12’s hottest team, edging Colorado for 76-74 victory

Washington State forward CJ Elleby  grabs a rebound against Colorado forward Alexander Strating during the first half  Wednesday in Pullman. (Young Kwak / AP)

PULLMAN – Over the past 13 days, the Washington State Cougars had picked up a pair of critical road victories and taken the Pac-12 Conference’s top team down to the wire in their best stretch of basketball this season.

Still, nobody would have classified WSU as the hottest team in the conference. But defeating the rightful owner of that title may have helped the Cougars swing a few opinions.

Since Feb. 2, nobody had been better than Colorado, which took a five-game win streak into Wednesday night’s contest at Beasley Coliseum. But it’s possible nobody has been more confident than the Cougars, who stopped the Buffaloes in their tracks, winning 76-74 behind strong offensive games from Robert Franks and CJ Elleby.

Franks, the Pac-12’s leading scorer, paced the home team with 19 points. Elleby came off the bench to score 18 and grab eight rebounds.

“I think it speaks volumes to where this team is at right now,” Franks said. “And we’ve just got to keep moving forward. This is a great win, but tomorrow we’ve got to get ready and prepare for Saturday.”

The Cougars (11-15, 4-9) have won three of their past four games. The lone exception was a two-point loss to Washington on Saturday. WSU led for long stretches in that game before the Huskies closed them down in the final 10 minutes.

Wednesday’s game against CU followed a different pattern. In total, there were 22 lead changes.

Both teams led by six points at stages of the game, but neither the Cougars or Buffaloes led by more than six.

The lead flipped 14 times in the second half, but the Cougars didn’t let it go once Isaiah Wade tipped an offensive rebound back into the hoop, making it 75-74 with 1:24 to play.

In the final 1 1/2 minutes, WSU played with the urgency – and maybe more important, the execution – it needed against the Huskies, forcing five CU misses late to emerge with the victory.

Wade made the front end of his free throws with 10 seconds to play and Jervae Robinson forced the Buffs’ McKinley Wright to take a tough 3-pointer on the other end.

CU had one more opportunity with less than a second left, but D’Shawn Schwartz’s 3-pointer – taken deep off an inbound pass – fell short of the target and WSU players poured off the home bench in celebration.

“I think in the last few minutes, we just locked in a little bit more,” Elleby said, “and we focused on time management. When we had the ball in our hands, we took the clock down, and so I think we did a way better job of executing down the stretch.”

Not that either team was prepared to give it away. In the final 10:19, the biggest lead was three points, held twice by WSU, and the lead switched nine times during that span.

“It was definitely a fight all game,” Elleby said. “They’re a great team, they just won five in a row, so it was tough for us to come in. We just battled all game and we never got down on ourselves, so I think that’s a positive.”

WSU forward Jeff Pollard took a hard elbow to the head in the first half and played only briefly in the second.

That meant more floor time for Wade, who did most of his work on the defensive end, with three steals and eight rebounds.

The Buffaloes had shot at least 40 percent from the field in each of their past 11 Pac-12 games, but were held to 37 percent (25 of 66). WSU made big strides in the turnover column, too, giving the ball away just 12 times after committing 19 turnovers against the Huskies.

The Cougars’ improvement has been quantifiable. WSU lost an 18-point game to UW the first time the teams met, but fell just 72-70 in the second meeting. The Cougars’ biggest margin of defeat this season came against CU in Boulder 40 days ago, as the Buffaloes won 92-60 at the Coors Events Center.

“I think the next part for us is just to continue to play those people we played in the first half of the conference,” coach Ernie Kent said. “Colorado just kicked us in Boulder. Utah did the same thing, and obviously UW. I know the fans can see it, but I want our guys to continue to feel just how much better they’ve gotten over time.”