PULLMAN – The all-too-sudden resurgence Washington State has experienced on the basketball court over the past few weeks can be largely attributed to the Cougars’ sharpened defense – and under that very umbrella, their diligence in guarding the 3-point line.
In three of the past four games, WSU had held the opposition to 31 percent or lower from the 3-point line. Arizona mustered 26 percent and Arizona State just 15.
Doing that for a fourth time in five games might have been a good way to shut down Utah, which came into Saturday’s game at Beasley Coliseum with more 3-point makes than anyone else in the Pacific-12 Conference and the league’s second-best percentage.
But, sharp as they’ve been, the Cougars finally went dull, and the Utes were effective shooting from just about every spot on the floor, connecting on 52 percent from the field (31 of 59) and 45 percent from outside (16 of 35) in a 92-79 victory.
The loss dropped 11th-place WSU to 11-15 overall and 4-10 in conference play. Utah moved up to fourth place in the league standings, improving to 15-12 and 9-6.
“Every time we broke down, they made you pay,” WSU coach Ernie Kent said. “And it was one of those games that we needed everybody to step up a bit, especially those young guys. … I thought we started the game extremely well and in great rhythm, and as soon as I have to sub a little bit and get out of the rotations we’ve been in, I feel like the momentum of the game got away from us and we never really gained it back.”
The Utes were coming off a 62-45 loss to Washington on Wednesday, but in just one half of Saturday’s game against WSU, they matched their total against the Huskies and took a 45-43 lead into halftime. The Utes eclipsed that in the second half, scoring 47, and at the same time nullified WSU’s offense, which managed only 36 points.
“There was a few times in that second half where we’d cut it to 10, nine, right around in there,” Kent said, “and a missed free throw here, missed free throw there, loose ball here, charge here, block. Just didn’t have it.”
The decisive surge for Utah came early in the second half. The Utes opened the half with a 13-5 run to gain their first double-digit lead and never trailed by fewer than eight points.
Forty-one days after an 18-point loss to Utah at the Huntsman Center, the Cougars knew they’d need to make adjustments to best the Utes in the rematch. One of those tweaks, however, probably didn’t involve playing stauncher defense on Utah guard Sedrick Barefield.
Barefield scored 10 points in the January meeting and had just 36 points in six career games against the Cougars. But the senior nearly hit that total in Saturday’s game, matching his season high and outscoring WSU’s Robert Franks – the Pac-12 leader – with 33 points on 5-of-10 shooting from behind the arc.
“There was some plays where we didn’t get out to him on the pick and roll,” WSU guard Viont’e Daniels said. “Plays where (Parker) Van Dyke got open on a rebound, then got open. So, there’s a lot of things film will tell us we need to work on and we’ll go from there.”
Van Dyke added 17 points for Utah with five 3-pointers, while Donnie Tillman made four 3s for 16 points.
Franks was on pace for a 40-point night after scoring 22 in the first half, but the Utes kept him to seven second-half points. The senior forward was WSU’s leader on the glass with seven rebounds.
“They were just more aggressive, trying to take me out,” Franks said, “and that’s just a part of the game, that’s part of the basketball game, so you can’t really say much out of it.”
The Cougars were shorthanded, playing without starting forward Jeff Pollard (concussion) and backup guard Carter Skaggs (chin).
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