PULLMAN – Klay Thompson’s time will come.
Thursday, the current Washington State Cougars had some of their own history to settle.
Someday down the road, historians will have to determine which was more significant in the wider scope of Washington State basketball: the day when the school retired the jersey of its most celebrated player, or some 40 hours earlier when the Cougars snagged an unlikely upset of the country’s eighth-ranked team.
The first event was nine years in the making. The second one? Even longer.
At any rate, it’ll be a tough choice to make, thanks to Kyle Smith, CJ Elleby, Jeff Pollard and a gritty Washington State team that fed off its largest crowd of the season, and played solid – at times, brilliant – basketball from wire-to-wire to fend off Dana Altman and No. 8 Oregon 72-61 Thursday night at Beasley Coliseum.
The Cougars hadn’t knocked off a top-10 team in 13 years – not since the 2007 squad beat No. 7 Arizona 77-73 in overtime. Since then, WSU basketball teams coached by Tony Bennett, Ken Bone and Ernie Kent had 19 opportunities to pull off the same feat and failed each time.
The victory allowed the Cougars (11-7, 2-3) to match their win total from 2018-19, with at least 14 games remaining, and acted as a sweet prelude to Thompson’s jersey retirement on Saturday, against Oregon State at 1 p.m.
“It was a party in the locker room,” senior forward Jeff Pollard said. “We’re all back there, we’re jumping. Because it is, it’s a big moment. It’s definitely a big-time win for this team, for this program and for the new coaching staff. First year, to get a top-10 win like this, that’s big.”
By almost every measure, the accomplishment was bigger and looked better than the one more than a decade ago. The 2007 Cougars qualified for the NCAA Tournament under Bennett, with a roster of program luminaries such as Derrick Low, Kyle Weaver, Aron Baynes and Taylor Rochestie.
Smith’s team may not carry the same star power, and this season probably won’t finish in the Elite Eight, but the Cougars didn’t need overtime to down the reigning Pac-12 champion Ducks, and they won by a much wider margin.
WSU’s 3-point shooting may as well have been an early tribute to Thompson, who’s stopping by Cougars’ practice Friday to meet – and now congratulate – the current group. Elleby and company did the Golden State sharpshooter proud, connecting on a season-high 11 of 21 3-pointers while holding Oregon to 7 of 21.
“I think I’m like a cousin of the Splash Brothers of something,” Elleby quipped. “I fit right in.”
The sophomore forward had what was easily his best Pac-12 outing, attacking the Ducks in the paint, making them pay on the perimeter and buying himself opportunities from the free-throw line. He made 9 of 20 shots from the field, 4 of 7 3s and all three of his FTs to finish with a game-high 25 points.
Tack on his career-high 14 rebounds and it probably goes down as Elleby’s best game in a WSU uniform – not to mention the quality, athleticism and pedigree of the team on the opposite bench.
“He was great tonight,” Altman said. “He was the difference in the game. He played really hard, really well. He hadn’t been shooting it well, but he got it going early and really played well.”
The Ducks saw the game slip out of their hands with 3 1/2 minutes to play, doomed by a nearly 3-minute scoreless stretch that allowed the Cougars to take a 12-point lead on a pair of Isaac Bonton free throws.
Bonton, a transfer guard and Portland native who grew up with aspirations of suiting up for the Ducks, was WSU’s second-leading scorer with 12 points. He also drew the toughest defensive matchup, guarding fellow Oregonian Payton Pritchard – someone he’s played with and against since early elementary school.
Pritchard, a candidate for Pac-12 Player of the Year, still scored 22 points on 8-of-15 shooting, but the senior point guard had six turnovers compared to five assists – the first time this season his turnover number was greater than his assist number.
“That’s the head of the snake for them. He’s one of the best point guards in the country,” Smith said. “They’re both from the Portland area and I was really proud Isaac, the first time at this level, competed against him.
“As a point guard, just like quarterback, you keep track of wins and losses, so that’s the only thing I care about.”
Pollard had 11 points and, playing without Tony Miller and Jaylen Shead, the Cougars got a lift off the bench from freshman DJ Rodman, who turned in a career-high eight points and five rebounds.
“He’s just an amazing talent,” Elleby said of Rodman. “There’s not a lot he can’t do on the court. … He’s going to have a great career here.”
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