LAS VEGAS – The lead already seemed good enough when Jeff Pollard caught the ball down low and slipped an inside bounce pass to Tony Miller, who drove to the basket, cocked his right arm back and punched the ball through the net, putting all 6-foot-8, 262 pounds of Evan Battey on Washington State poster.
The Cougars played, and finished, like a team determined to shake off 10 years of misery at the Pac-12 Tournament. So, the 10-point lead they held at halftime wasn’t going to suffice, nor was the 20-point lead they established when Miller catapulted over Battey and dunked himself into the conversation for SportsCenter Top 10 honors, giving WSU its largest advantage at 22 points.
Not weighed down by their 10-year drought at the Pac-12 Tournament, but inspired by the chance to keep their season alive for 24 more hours, the Cougars trailed for just 87 seconds against Colorado Wednesday night before driving the Buffaloes into the ground, 82-68, in front of 7,452 fans at T-Mobile Arena.
For the first time since the final year of the Tony Bennett era at WSU, the Cougars will be playing on the second day of the conference tournament. It’s a place they haven’t been since 2009, when the event was still being played at Staples Center in Los Angeles. Before Wednesday, WSU had also never won a conference tournament game when seeded lower than ninth.
“Getting the first win in the tournament since 2009 is a big deal,” said Pollard, the team’s lone fourth-year senior. “Obviously first time since I’ve been here that we’ve gotten past the first round. It’s a big moment for all of us. But at the same time we know tomorrow is another day, and we’re all kind of on the same page, looking forward. And getting ready for that.”
The win pushes (16-16) WSU back to .500 on the season and now the Cougars move on to Thursday’s quarterfinal, where they’ll play third-seeded Arizona State (20-11) at 8:30 p.m. The Cougars bowed to the Sun Devils in the season finale last week in Tempe, 83-74.
In the wake of the COVID-19 spread, the game – and every other one for the remainder of the conference tournament – will be played under new attendance protocols implemented by the Pac-12 Wednesday that allow only essential staff, TV network partners, credentialed media and limited family members and friends to attend.
CJ Elleby, named to the All-Pac-12 First Team two days earlier, found his shooting touch on the floor in Vegas and finished four points off his career-high, scoring 30 after making 6 of 10 shots from beyond the arc. Elleby made his first three triples and didn’t miss until the 7:16 mark in the first half.
“You know, maybe,” Elleby said, asked if he could tell he’d be capable of a big night after watching his first few shots fall. “But what’s more important is just I feel like it got my team going, it opened up things, you know. And once I saw those go in, it was going to be a good night, for sure.”
Isaac Bonton, who’s scored double figures against every Pac-12 opponent in his debut season with the Cougars, finished in double digits for the 18th consecutive game, totaling 15 points to go with six assists.
When it wasn’t Elleby or Bonton, it was Pollard, who played through a broken finger to supply six points or three rebounds, or Miller, who followed a career-high 21-point outing with nine points and six rebounds. The Cougars also got productive minutes from Jervae Robinson (8 pts.), Volodymyr Markovetskyy (6 pts.), DJ Rodman (6 pts., 3 reb.) and Noah Wlliams (5 stl.).
“I thought we played really well tonight, and our defense was excellent,” first-year WSU coach Kyle Smith said. “And just stayed with it the whole time. We had a couple of ups and downs, but stayed the course and played one of the better games of the year.”
The Cougars withstood a scoring drought that lasted nearly five minutes to go into the halftime break leading by 10 points, in part because of the pressure they applied on Colorado’s ball-handlers – namely McKinley Wright, who had just four points on 1 of 6 shooting in the first half.
“I thought offensively in the first half we just got punked at times,” Colorado coach Tad Boyle said. “We turned the ball over. They were the aggressors, and that’s why they were up ten (at halftime).”
The staggering defensive improvements WSU’s made under Smith were on display from the jump. Colorado missed on its first 10 attempts from the three-point line and finished 4 of 21 from deep. The Buffaloes were 21 of 57 from the field.
The Buffaloes, who cruised to a 78-56 victory in the teams’ only other meeting this season, finished 21 of 57 from the field and scored just 25 points in the first half – the second-lowest total allowed in a half by WSU this season against a Pac-12 opponent.
“I think just we put 40 minutes together,” Bonton said. “In the first half, we didn’t play bad against them in Boulder, but the second half we let it slip a little bit, got kind of complacent and sped up a little bit. This time we stayed focused, stuck with our game plan and really slowed it down, and just keep playing defense, keep playing hard defense on McKinley.”
Wright still had a team-high 21 points and nine rebounds for the Buffaloes, while Tyler Bey finished with 19 points and eight rebounds.
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