Washington State went up by a seemingly comfortable margin in the second half, but its double-digit lead slipped away and the game became tense. The Cougars kept their heads and inched past their Bay Area opponents for a must-have Pac-12 win.
WSU overcame a late Cal rally to prevail 68-64 on Saturday at Haas Pavilion in Berkeley, California, in a contest the visitors couldn’t afford to lose – for the sake of their NCAA Tournament resume.
Two days earlier, the Cougars squandered a 16-point advantage but held off a Stanford surge in crunch time for a crucial conference victory.
It hasn’t been pretty, and it’s been a nerve-racking stretch for the WSU faithful. But the results are coming, so who’s complaining?
The Cougars (14-7, 7-3) are on a five-game winning streak after sweeping their Bay Area road trip for the first time since 1993. They’re off to their best 10-game start in conference play in 15 years and steadily climbing the Pac-12 standings.
“We were looking at the scoreboard too much probably,” WSU coach Kyle Smith said of his team’s stagnation down the stretch versus Cal, “but we’ll take it. We’ll learn from that. It’s a process.
“Let’s go back to when we were losing those games to Eastern Washington and New Mexico State.”
The Cougars collapsed in the second half in those defeats, and a couple of others, but they seem to be learning how to close.
“We’ve grown up a lot since then. … On the road, to be able to do that (sweeping Stanford and Cal), there’s a grittiness and toughness.”
Smith highlighted the veteran performance from senior guard Michael Flowers, who finished with 21 points, shooting 4 of 5 on 3-pointers, and five assists. He went 7 of 7 from the foul line in the final 5 minutes and snagged a game-sealing rebound to help WSU escape Cal, which dropped its 10th straight game. The skid includes a 65-57 loss in Pullman on Jan. 15.
The Bears fell into a 12-point hole with 7:24 to go.
From then until the final horn, the Cougars didn’t muster a field goal.
Cal (9-15, 2-11) picked up the pace and climbed back behind its transition offense, trimming the deficit to one possession with about a minute to go. WSU’s defense made enough stops late, and its foul shooting held the Bears at bay.
“We gotta get better – keep playing and keep executing, trying to score,” Smith said. “I think we got a little tentative, and that can happen when you’re still a little green.”
Before their dry spell, the Cougars had been effective on offense, producing four double-figure scorers. Posts Efe Abogidi and Mouhamed Gueye contributed 17 and 10 points, respectively, and guard Tyrell Roberts added 12. WSU shot 40% from the floor, 10 of 21 on 3-pointers and 14 of 17 from the foul line. Gueye, the 6-foot-11 freshman from Senegal, was 2 of 2 from 3-point range and tacked on three blocks and two steals.
Abogidi added 11 rebounds, four steals, two blocks and a high-flying jam, and shot 7 of 8 from the line during perhaps his best career outing in Pac-12 play.
The Bears struggled to find windows in the paint throughout much of the afternoon. They were playing without standout big man Andre Kelly, who’s out for the season with an ankle injury.
“Me and ‘Mo’ (Gueye) together, that’s a scary combination,” Abogidi said. “We can alter shots every time. That’s what we should be every day from now on. That’s the expectation for us.”
Abogidi and Gueye keyed WSU’s burst out of halftime.
Cal’s offense went cold for about 4 minutes, allowing WSU to separate and fashion the game’s first double-digit advantage at 57-46 with 9:30 remaining.
The Cougars led 33-31 after a first half featuring seven lead changes. They started 6 for 8 from 3-point range but cooled off. The Bears hit 10 of their first 14 attempts from inside the arc before WSU’s interior defense eased in.
WSU, a top-five team in the Pac-12, hosts the Arizona schools next week, beginning with a 6 p.m. tipoff Thursday against No. 7 Arizona, which sits atop the conference standings.