In Kyle Smith’s first season, Washington State looked the part of a team that was beginning to close the gap on the rest of the Pac-12 Conference. The early stages of Smith’s second season in Pullman may be more promising than those in 2019-20.
Even with four players unavailable due to COVID-19, the previously unbeaten Cougars went toe-to-toe with one of the conference’s traditional heavyweights, leading by as many as eight points in the second half against Arizona before ultimately losing 86-82 to the Wildcats in double overtime at Beasley Coliseum.
Before Saturday’s game, the school announced centers Volodymyr Markovetskyy and Brandton Chatfield, forward DJ Rodman and guard Ryan Rapp would be out because of COVID-19 developments. WSU’s rotation grew smaller when Dishon Jackson fouled out in the second half, and again when another freshman center, Efe Abogidi, joined him on the bench with five fouls a few possessions into the first overtime period.
But a paper-thin rotation didn’t hurt the Cougars nearly as much as miscues from the free throw line, where Smith’s team finished 19 of 37 (51%) and squandered key opportunities near the end of the first overtime period that would’ve saved them the hassle of playing a second.
“Tonight was a college basketball game, two teams really competing hard,” Smith said. “A hat tip to them because they hung in there, kind of made some plays and we had a great opportunity if we just do our job at the foul line. We should’ve got out of there with a win, but hopefully it’s room for growth.”
The Cougars (8-1, 1-1), who opened the season with nine consecutive home games by virtue of their road game at Colorado being canceled, will go on the road for the first time this season to play Cal in Berkeley next Thursday at 7 p.m. on the Pac-12 Networks.
Prior to Saturday’s game on the Palouse, Arizona, which has won three of the last six conference titles, held a 66-17 advantage in the all-time series against WSU. The Wildcats are 16-3 against the Cougars during the Sean Miller era, had won 15 of the last 16 games against WSU and hadn’t lost a game at Beasley Coliseum since 2010. Each of the last seven WSU-Arizona games had been decided by double digits with five of those being decided by 20 points or more.
The Cougars, who’d won their last nine games dating back to the finale of the 2019-20 regular season, were on the brink of beating the Wildcats in Pullman for the first time in a decade when Noah Williams missed three of four free throws inside the final minute of the first overtime period, allowing Arizona’s Terrell Brown to tie the game at 76-76 on a layup and force the second overtime.
“It was just a tough one,” WSU’s Isaac Bonton said. “It’s tough because we didn’t control what we could control. … Things we can control and we’ve got to take care of that because I don’t feel like there’s no moral victories for us. We were good enough to put ourselves in a position to win and we just didn’t close.”
Bonton caught fire in the second half, finishing 10 of 23 with a game-high 25 points, while Williams lifted the Cougars in the second half, scoring 11 of his 16 points after the break. Andrej Jakimovski and Abogidi also scored in double figures for WSU, with 15 points and 12 points respectively. Abogidi finished with a team-high eight rebounds, contributing three blocks and two steals before fouling out.
Bonton’s driving layup gave the Cougars a two-point lead near the end of regulation, but the Wildcats scored on consecutive possessions to make it 70-68. On WSU’s next possession, Abogidi collected an inside pass and finished underneath the basket to tie it up. The Cougars put the clamps on the Wildcats on the next possession, forcing a jumper after the shot clock had expired.
With Abogidi (6-foot-10) and Jackson (6-10) both fouling out, and with Markovetskyy (7-1) missing, the Cougars were forced to play a smaller lineup in overtime. That meant using Miller as a small-ball center and bringing freshman wing Carlos Rosario off the bench for the first time this season. WSU never trailed by more than six points in the game and held Arizona to its lowest field goal percentage of the season (37.3%).
“Obviously really proud of our guys, the way they competed being a little shorthanded tonight,” Smith said. “I think everyone that got in the game was ready to compete and did a really good job.”
Bennedict Mathurin led Arizona with 24 points and 11 rebounds, while James Akinjo scored 18 points and Brown Jr. had 15.