LAS VEGAS – In a postgame interview after a 64-59 loss to Arizona State at the Pac-12 Tournament, Isaac Bonton indicated he has still unfinished business at Washington State.
This season, that is.
The senior point guard hasn’t thought much about what will come next.
Even though they won’t be grabbing an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament, the Cougars may still be in line for an invitation to the NIT or CBI, which could give Bonton at least 40 more minutes in a WSU uniform.
“Right now, my mind’s totally focused on the season,” Bonton said. “We just got done with the Pac-12 Tournament and who knows, like I said, what postseason holds. So I’m focusing on this right now and when the time comes, I’ll figure out what I’m going to do.”
In another comment regarding his future, Bonton told reporters, “I don’t know if our season’s over yet, so just focusing on one day at a time.”
The Cougars paid tribute to their only senior after the home finale against Stanford, bringing Bonton to center court during a pregame ceremony and playing video messages on the jumbotron throughout a matinee game in Pullman. The point guard penned a thank you message to WSU fans on Twitter one day later.
But Bonton never explicitly said he won’t be returning in 2021-22.
The Portland native could still take advantage of an NCAA rule that affords student-athletes an additional year of eligibility after many had their season impacted by COVID-19.
In just his second game since Feb. 13, Bonton scored a team-high 19 points to go with four rebounds and four assists. The senior missed WSU’s last game against ASU while recovering from sprained ankles. Even after practicing with the Cougars leading up to this week’s tournament, head coach Kyle Smith indicated his top scorer would be on a minutes restriction during Wednesday’s game.
It didn’t play out that way, however, and Bonton logged more minutes than any other player on either team, playing 39 at T-Mobile Arena.
“When I took him out in the first half, he said, ‘Coach I’m fine,’ (and) I said, ‘OK,’ ” Smith said. “That was about it. He looked fine and he knows his body better than we do. I was tentative. I didn’t want to put a lot of pressure on him, like you have to play. Didn’t know where he would be. He said, ‘I feel comfortable to start,’ and he was pretty darn good the whole game.”
The Cougars needed Bonton’s 39 minutes and 19 points to merely stay in a one-possession game with the Sun Devils, who forced a late WSU turnover and sealed the game at the free-throw line.
“It’s always tough being hurt, especially at the end of the season,” Bonton said. “It happened last season and for me, I just wanted to get back out there and play.
“But it’s important that I took care of my body at the same time. So it’s been tough, but it’s been allowing me to just support my teammates and lead in different ways. I’m glad I got to compete with my guys again and we’ll see what the future holds for us.”
The Big Dance isn’t in the cards for a 14-13 WSU team that just bowed out of the Pac-12 Tournament, but the Cougars may still be in play for a postseason event such as the NIT or CBI.
The NIT normally uses a 32-team format and is the next-most prestigious postseason event after the NCAA Tournament. But this year’s NIT will take just 16 teams and will be held at a neutral site in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.
In most years, WSU’s resume may not be enough to earn the Cougars an NIT bid, and qualifying this year could be challenging with a smaller field. But it’s unclear how many NIT-eligible teams would pass on the opportunity to play, given the trials and tribulations many went through during the regular season.
“I think we’re OK there if they have it,” Smith said of the NIT. “It’s not the one I was concentrating on. I know the NIT, they’re not sure how many programs will want to keep going, but we’re hoping that we fit the profile of a team that’s young and would like that opportunity. So, I don’t know how it’s going to play out, but I’m hoping it’ll work in our favor, we’ll have a chance to.”
After the loss, Smith said a parent in attendance asked him if they could take their son home, rather than him flying home on the team charter. Smith had to explain the Cougars may still have competitive basketball to play in the coming weeks.
“I said, I don’t even understand that, we still have season to play,” Smith said. “So, hopefully, he gets that and his parents get it, too, because I want kids that really want to play.”
Three family members of Andrej Jakimovski stood in front of T-Mobile Arena Wednesday and posted with handcrafted signs customized for the WSU freshman and North Macedonia native.
Dave, Stanche and Kalina Sweatman live in Las Vegas six months and usually return home to Skopja, North Macedonia, for the remainder of the year, so Jakimovski’s relatives took advantage of a rare opportunity to watch the Cougars in the conference tournament.
The general public is unable to attend this year’s event, but a limited number of family members and friends were able to obtain tickets. Approximately 100 – from both teams – had seats for Wednesday’s 1 p.m. tipoff.
A bigger, white sign designed by the Sweatmans had “Jaki” with “23” in black block letters outlined with red trim, while a smaller sign designed by Jakimovski’s second cousin, Kalina, read “I love you” with the player’s No. 23 written with black paint inside a red heart. Stanche, Jakimovski’s first cousin, wore a crimson WSU T-shirt with “Andrej” and “23” on the back.
“For him, coming from a different country, I think the game here is played a lot faster than in Europe,” Dave said. “I think he’s picked up the game fast for a freshman and his English is good, too. We’ve watched some of the postgame interviews he’s done.”
Myah Williams, the older sister of WSU guard Noah Williams, attended Wednesday’s game with her son. Smith, the Cougars’ second-year coach, also had immediate family members in attendance.
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