The men’s basketball teams at Washington State and Idaho are separated by just 8 miles, but the talent gap between Kyle Smith’s Cougars and Zac Claus’ Vandals was supposed to be particularly wide this year.
Put it this way: The unbeaten Cougars came into Wednesday’s 276th Battle of the Palouse ranked No. 137 on the ratings scale developed by statistician Ken Pomeroy, while the winless Vandals checked in at No. 342.
The Cougars didn’t look 205 places better than the Vandals and not until the midway point of the second half could you have convinced a casual viewer they were better all.
But for the fourth time this season, a slow-starting WSU team played its best basketball after halftime, and for the fourth time the Cougars erased a halftime deficit to win 61-58 at Beasley Coliseum in Pullman.
Smith’s team, which received a vote in the Associated Press Top 25 earlier this week, improved to 4-0 on the season. Despite a COVID-19 scare at WSU late last week, the Cougars and Vandals were able to play for the 116th consecutive year. WSU improved to 166-110 in the all-time series.
“We know how to fight through adversity and we’re pretty good at it,” WSU sophomore Noah Williams said. “Second half, I feel like that’s our game and we need to learn how to come out strong in the first half same way we’re coming out strong in the second half.”
A game that featured an 11-point lead for Idaho and a 12-point lead for WSU was decided in the final minute. The Vandals clawed back from a 55-43 deficit in the last 5 minutes, springing a 13-2 run to make it 57-56 with 51 seconds left.
Cougars guard Isaac Bonton endured another inefficient night shooting the ball, but it was a short jumper from the senior that restored a three-point lead for WSU. Scott Blakney’s dunk at the other end cut it to 59-58, but Williams, whose calm free-throw shooting helped the Cougars take down Washington last season, made two more at the line with 10 seconds remaining to knock out another rival.
“It would be great to win a game by double digits, but at the end of the day basketball is basketball, so I can’t be mad at it,” Williams said. “I love it. I love playing crunch-time minutes, I love being in the heat of the moment. I love that, so I have no emotions when it comes down to crunch time, I just play. Just lace my shoes up and go play.”
For the second time in four games, Williams was WSU’s points leader, scoring 19 to go with four rebounds, four assists and four blocked shots. He also went 8 of 8 from the free-throw line.
Bonton was 6 of 15 from the field with 17 points, eight rebounds, two assists and four turnovers.
Freshman forward Andrej Jakimovski, who passed up a chance to play professionally in Europe to sign with the Cougars as the third highest-rated recruit in school history, overcame a tough outing against Oregon State to score 11 points on 4-of-6 shooting and 3 of 4 from behind the arc.
Jakimovski, a Macedonia native who most recently played in Italy, said it’s taken time for him to adjust to the American game, telling Pac-12 Networks broadcaster Dan Dickau in a postgame interview, “The style of the game is so different from Europe. Here it’s more faster, more athletic and I struggled a bit, but now it’s my time and I’m happy to play and I’m happy the coaches have confidence in me.”
WSU’s defense in the second half wasn’t any better than it was in the first, but the Cougars and 7-footer Volodymyr Markovetskyy mostly held down Blakney after halftime, limiting the Idaho center to 2-of-7 shooting after he was 4 of 4 in the first half.
“Vova came in and did his job,” Williams said. “He kept his side of the street clean. I can’t be mad at him. I was just telling him, ‘It’s going to be hard for him to score over you because you’re just so big. Put your arms up, it’s going to be hard to make that shot.’ ”
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