PULLMAN – Isaac Bonton has placed the Cougars squarely on his back at various points this season. His late scoring flurry helped them take down UCLA in overtime. His 34-point effort against Oregon State allowed them to beat the Beavers on the day the school retired the No. 1 jersey of Klay Thompson.
Bonton’s been key in helping create opportunities for his Washington State teammates, and he’s one of just a few Cougars who can manufacture offense for himself.
Which is why Bonton’s value to this WSU team may be best measured in the games he’s missed.
For the second time in five days, the Cougars badly needed their point guard’s facilitation, defensive force and shot-making, but were stymied without it, losing 66-57 to 11th-place California on Wednesday night at Beasley Coliseum.
Without Bonton, still sidelined by the hip injury he suffered last Thursday at UCLA, the Cougars didn’t reach double digits in the scoring column until the 7:39 mark of the first half. The offense didn’t recover until it was too late, sending WSU to its third consecutive loss and sixth in the past eight games.
The Golden Bears, meanwhile, won for the first time on the road this season after a 0-7 start outside of Berkeley.
Barring a potential home game in the postseason College Basketball Invitational, WSU (14-13, 5-9) plays in Pullman for the final time this season on Sunday, hosting Stanford (16-9, 5-7) at 5 p.m.
During his weekly news conference on Tuesday, Kyle Smith sounded optimistic Bonton would be cleared to play by then. The WSU head coach reaffirmed it’s “definitely the hope” the junior can return to play the Cardinal.
“We’ve just got to kind of prepare that he’s not,” Smith said. “Either way, he comes back and changes us. It’s frustrating as a coach, it’s frustrating, I’m sure, for the team. It’s just been a lot of injuries. You can’t let yourself go there, and you’ve just got to keep plugging through.”
But here’s a glimpse of how the Cougars have performed without Bonton, who, in Pac-12 games, is top five in the conference in scoring average (16.6 ppg) and assists (5.0). For the first time this season, WSU failed to clear 60 points in consecutive games. The Cougars reached their season low in assists (six) in Saturday’s loss at USC and their ball distribution wasn’t much better against the Golden Bears, with just eight assists.
“I mean, when someone has the ball in their hands the majority of the game and then it’s gone, of course it makes a difference,” WSU guard Jervae Robinson said. “But we’re a team, so we’re not just going to blame it on one person. We’ve just got to keep playing.”
WSU’s 3-point percentage improved, but only marginally. One game after the Cougars watched 22 consecutive 3-pointers fail, they went through a stretch that saw them miss 12 of 13 from distance. In the past two games, they’re 9 of 51 from beyond the arc.
The Golden Bears, who swept the Cougars for the first time since 2013-14, led from the start and established a double-digit lead 9 minutes into the opening half. They built that to 17 points by the 6:19 mark and D.J. Thorpe blocked Daron Henson’s 3-point attempts near the end of the half, allowing Cal to enter the break up 32-20.
“I just think it wore on us a little bit,” Smith said. “Missed them early, got down, we needed a little mojo. We got a little in the second half, but not enough.”
CJ Elleby, who scored three points on nine shot attempts in the first half, squeezed four points into the first 40 seconds of the second half and the Cougars closed the gap to seven points on Robinson’s 3-pointer. But a resilient Cal team, desperate to break out of a four-game slump, punched back and re-established a double-digit lead that held nearly the rest of the way.
Tony Miller came off the Cougars’ bench to score a career-high 18 points and Elleby added 13, to go with 10 rebounds. Robinson had nine points on three 3-pointers before fouling out late in the game.
The Golden Bears were led by Paris Austin (19 points), Andre Kelly (16) and Matt Bradley (11).
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