They hoped to carry the momentum they’d built from a home sweep of the Bay Area schools. Instead, the Washington State Cougars reverted to the team that lost six consecutive Pac-12 games from Jan. 9-27.
After Noah Williams made program history with 72 points in wins over Cal and Stanford, Arizona caught the sophomore guard on one of his worst shooting nights in a WSU uniform, and Isaac Bonton’s return to the court – albeit in a limited role – wasn’t enough to quell the Cougars’ offensive woes in a 69-53 loss to the Wildcats at the McKale Center.
Williams, who scored 32 points against the Golden Bears and 40 against the Cardinal, playing a combined 85 minutes in those games, went 2 of 15 from the field with eight points against Arizona. Bonton, who entered Thursday’s contest as the Pac-12’s fourth-leading scorer at more than 18 points per game, finished with three points in 19 minutes on 1-of-5 shooting from the field.
WSU’s top two scorers on the season were just 2 of 11 from 3-point range and had six turnovers to only two assists.
“Just a tough one tonight for us, I thought we played hard, very purposeful for the first 18, 20 minutes of the game,” WSU coach Kyle Smith said. “Actually played pretty hard throughout, but got to make shots to win on the road and didn’t shoot well enough. Didn’t rebound well enough. So you’re going to have to play really well in this league, especially against a team as talented as Arizona.”
The Cougars (14-11, 7-11) will spend the next three days in Tempe, visiting Arizona State (9-11, 6-8) on Saturday at 6 p.m. and Monday at noon. Both games will air on the Pac-12 Networks.
WSU will finish above .500 in the regular season regardless of what happens in a two-game series against the Sun Devils, but the Cougars can guarantee a winning season by winning just one of two games in Tempe. ASU is coming off consecutive wins over Washington, including an 80-72 victory Thursday.
It took the Wildcats time to find an offensive rhythm in the first half, closing on a 10-2 run and entering halftime nursing a 28-24 lead. Meanwhile, the offense never arrived for the Cougars, who finished with fewer than 60 points for the sixth time this season.
Even with Bonton back in the fold, and Williams coming off a historic week, the Cougars didn’t get much production from their backcourt through the first 20 minutes. Bonton, who logged 12 first-half minutes, was scoreless and committed three turnovers, while Williams opened 1 of 10 with two turnovers.
The Cougars took a cautious approach with Bonton, who was cleared to play after missing the prior three games with an injury, but Smith indicated the point guard’s ankles were still bothering him Thursday night and was uncertain postgame if he’d be able to play a more expanded role on Saturday against ASU.
“That happens when you come off an injury,” Smith said. “I don’t know if it’ll be hurting him … we’ll see where it goes.”
James Akinjo played aggressive defense on Williams, who was undoubtedly at the top of Arizona’s scouting report after hitting his career-high in consecutive games last week, but the WSU guard also missed a handful of open looks – the same ones that went down time and time again versus Cal and Stanford.
“I thought he pressed a little bit, but he kind of fought his way out of it in the second half,” Smith said. “It was when we were down 12, 14, but he made a couple of steals, got that transition layup, they fouled him at half-court. He’s still feisty.”
Arizona used the first 2 minutes of the second half to extend its lead, going up 31-24 when Azuolas Tubelis caught Jordan Brown Jr.’s pass mid-air and finished the layup while drawing a foul from Efe Abogidi.
Although the Cougars cut the deficit to three points when TJ Bamba was fouled on a 3-pointer off the glass, the Wildcats scored 21 of the game’s next 28 points and established a 12-point lead when WSU’s coach was assessed a technical foul.
The Wildcats, playing without starting guard Kerr Kriisa, were led by James Akinjo, who scored 19 points to go with six rebounds, and Bennedict Mathurin, who had 14 points on 5-of-7 shooting.
Bamba and Dishon Jackson were the only WSU players in double figures, scoring 12 points and 11 points, respectively. Bamba finished 3 of 3 from 3-point range, but seven other WSU players combined to go just 4 of 25 from beyond the arc. As a team, the Cougars finished 20 of 63 from the field, were outrebounded 40-32 and assisted on only eight baskets.
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