Three games ago, Noah Williams scored eight points for Washington State before fouling out of a win over UCLA. Two games ago, the Washington State guard went just 2 of 13 from the field, scoring four points in a loss to USC. Earlier this week, the sophomore let a former AAU teammate, Washington’s Marcus Tsohonis, blow by him for the game-winner in a two-point loss to WSU’s in-state rival.
With a gallery of images from those games rolling through his head all week, and the Cougars down to two scholarship guards, Williams responded with the performance of his career Thursday night, scoring 32 points with nine rebounds, seven assists and three steals in an 82-51 victory over Cal at Beasley Coliseum.
It was the largest margin of victory for WSU (13-10, 6-10) in 137 games against Cal and the program’s largest margin of victory against a conference opponent since a 33-point win over Stanford in 1993.
“I came in with a chip on my shoulder, for sure,” Williams said. “I was just here to play basketball, the game just flowed my way. Yeah, it was a tough loss to UW that actually really hurt. That actually hit home, so I just had to bounce back.”
In the three games prior, against UCLA, USC and the Huskies, Williams made just six shots and combined to score 24 points, but the Seattle native made a pair of free throws to reach the number on the back of his jersey – 24 – in the first half against the Golden Bears, besting his previous career high of 21 points.
Williams, who’d made four 3-pointers in his past five games, also busted out of a shooting slump, connecting on his first four tries from beyond the arc and finishing 4 of 6.
“I put a lot of work in in the offseason,” Williams told the Pac-12 Networks in a postgame interview. “Countless hours in the gym working on my footwork, trying to keep my feet right on my shot, my base. That’s really what it is and just staying confident. Making sure I’m staying in confident while I’m shooting my shot, knowing I’m going to go in, if I miss it I’m going to keep on shooting it. The next one’s going to go in. Have to have that shooter’s mentality, a short-term memory loss when you miss.”
WSU beat Cal with relative ease in the first meeting between the teams this season, but the Golden Bears were without all-conference guard Matt Bradley in that matchup. Bradley played 23 minutes and scored 16 points in Thursday’s game despite not starting due to illness.
It was the Cougars who entered at a disadvantage in the rematch. Isaac Bonton, WSU’s leader in points and assists, missed his second consecutive game after spraining both ankles against USC and backup guard Ryan Rapp was ruled out with a leg injury, leaving Williams and freshman TJ Bamba as the only scholarship guards available.
Without any depth in the backcourt, WSU needed the most aggressive version of Williams and the former O’Dea High product wasn’t reluctant to offer it, pleading with coach Kyle Smith to leave him in the game at 73-42 when Williams was one rebound and three assists short of a triple-double.
“I sure did, I sure did,” Williams said, “but he wanted to rest me for the game on Saturday and I’m not worried about it.”
Said Smith of his player’s performance: “I didn’t know Noah had that in him, to be honest. He’s obviously a great competitor and he’s fearless and he just kind of was in attack mode all night.”
In the 31 minutes he logged Thursday, Williams made a career-high four 3-pointers, finished an assortment of shots at the rim and took 15 trips to the free throw line, making 10 foul shots.
His best highlight came with 1:10 left to play in the first half, when Williams split a pair of Cal defenders, drove to the rim and contorted his body mid-air, reversing to the other side of the basket before finishing the layup and drawing a foul. As Williams got off the ground, he shrugged both shoulders as teammates raced over to meet him, then made the ensuing free throw to reach a new career high.
“I was feeling hot, I just gave the little Jordan shrug like, I don’t know what I’m supposed to do,” Williams said. “I’m here to play basketball, I’m just having fun.”
Williams made a case to stay on the floor with 6:50 left, not only to make an attempt at WSU’s first triple-double since 2007 (Kyle Weaver), but so he could aim for the career-high 43 points set by his father, Guy, a point guard for the Cougars from 1981-83.
“I wanted to beat that, but I couldn’t,” Williams said. “It feels great and it’s a blessing. I’m here to keep on going. I want to beat it.”
In a game that was all about Williams, it was easy to overlook other aspects of WSU’s performance. Andrej Jakimovski entered triple-double in his most complete game of the year, scoring 11 points on 3 of 6 from three-point range, to go with nine assists and seven rebounds.
One game after hitting a season-high with 19 turnovers, the Cougars addressed their most pressing problem, and turned the ball over a season-low seven times on Thursday.
“We’ve been harping on it for awhile and finally,” Smith said. “We did a lot of push-ups and sit-ups and we’re going to keep going with it. I guess the coaching staff has to do some now. When we’re under 12, it should be five sets for the coaching staff. I’ll get in there, I’ll get in there and do some push-ups. My abs could use some work.”
WSU held Cal to 18 of 50 (36%) shooting from the field and had 39 rebounds to the opponent’s 26. Efe Abogidi neared a double-double with 10 points and eight rebounds while DJ Rodman added 11 points.
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