Washington State returned home Thursday hoping to rediscover the defensive form that carried the Cougars to an unbeaten record through the first two months of the 2020-21 season.
After a 71-56 loss to Utah at Beasley Coliseum, it appears the search will continue.
The Cougars (9-5, 2-5) lost for the fifth time in six games, dropped their 14th consecutive game to the Utes (6-6, 2-5) and watched their defense continue to crack against a Utah team that projected to be much worse on offense than the Stanford, UCLA and USC teams that averaged 83.6 points per game in recent wins over WSU.
Although they shored up a few of their defensive issues in the second half against a Utah team that was looking to milk the clock, the Cougars still allowed the Utes to go 28 of 51 (55%) from the field – the highest percentage for any team against WSU since Utah shot 63% in Salt Lake City last season.
“We were bad first half, that’s the best way to put it,” WSU coach Kyle Smith said, speaking about his team’s defense. “Second half we were able to defend a little but better, but they were also trying to milk the clock. … Really difficult game for us tonight.”
Noah Williams supplied much of the offense for WSU, scoring a team-high 17 points on 6-of-11 shooting while connecting on a season-high three 3-pointers. The sophomore guard reached 20 points for just the second time in his career and matched his career high with four assists, but help was hard to find on the offensive end of the floor, too. Williams’ teammates combined to shoot 14 of 42 (33.3%).
Isaac Bonton, who entered the game averaging a conference-high 21.6 points in Pac-12 play, was held to four points on 1-of-8 shooting – the point guard’s lowest output since a Dec. 7, 2019, game against New Mexico State. It was just the fourth time in 41 games he failed to reach double digits and broke the country’s second-longest streak of consecutive double-digit games.
“Could’ve helped a lot, but we’ve got to be able to play better when he doesn’t do it,” Smith said. “If we’re counting on it, that’s going to be a tough one. … I didn’t give him a good enough game plan.”
Smith’s team hasn’t held a lead since the second half of a Jan. 9 game against Stanford. In the past four contests, opponents have led for 159 minutes and 40 seconds (of a possible 160 minutes).
Like the Bruins and the Trojans, the Utes led from start to finish and opened up a double-digit lead midway through the first half. Utah went on an 11-0 scoring spree and held WSU scoreless for 4 minutes and 12 seconds. The Cougars closed the gap to nine points on two occasions, but the Utes led by double digits for the remainder of the game, extending a win streak that dates back to the Ken Bone era at WSU.
After conceding 43 points at halftime and trailing by 17 points entering the break, the Cougars held the Utes to 28 second-half points and forced their opponent into 16 turnovers.
But for the 10th time in 14 games, WSU committed at least 15 turnovers. Even when the Cougars kept the ball, they struggled to put it in the basket, shooting 20 of 53 (37%) as a team.
“They just outplayed us,” Smith said. “They’re pretty sound, they attacked our ball screen stuff with (Rylan) Jones.”
Jones was Utah’s primary creator on offense, dishing out a game-high 10 assists and Branden Carlsen made an impact at both ends, scoring 14 points to go with 10 rebounds. Timmy Allen (13 points), Riley Battin (12), Alfonso Plummer (12) and Mikael Jantunen (10) also scored in double figures.
Smith commended Williams for his energy after the sophomore guard complemented his 17 points and five assists with four steals, matching his career high in the latter two categories, but Smith implored him to improve his rebounding.
“He played the right way,” Smith said. “He got the ball in the post and the 3s he took were really good shots and we need help on the glass. We need him to get in there.”
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