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WSU Men's Basketball

‘They stayed the course’: Washington State preserves second-half lead against Utah to pick up needed win

By Colton Clark The Spokesman-Review

Washington State snapped a 13-game losing streak against Utah and finally scored a victory in Salt Lake City.

More important, the Cougars picked up a much-needed boost in confidence.

WSU entered Saturday’s Pac-12 afternoon game having dropped four of its past five games. The Cougars faltered down the stretch in each of those tight losses.

But they closed this one out, holding off the Utes in a 77-61 decision at the Huntsman Center.

“Our guys had a good way about them,” coach Kyle Smith said after WSU wrapped up its second road win over Utah in 20 tries, and first since 1946. “They stayed the course.”

The Cougars (9-6, 2-1) capitalized on Utah’s limited post presence to build a 10-point lead at the half, then leaned on sharpshooting from guard Tyrell Roberts to balloon their advantage to 19 points with about 13:30 to play.

Utah (8-8, 1-5) sliced into the deficit quickly, trimming the Cougars’ cushion to nine points just 4 minutes later. The Utes’ surge likely troubled a WSU fan base that has grown accustomed to watching its team fold in crunch time.

“I felt a little anxiety as well,” Smith said. “But we hung in there.”

WSU offset a late lull on offense with close-out perimeter defense and pulled away from the foul line to secure its first win over Utah since 2014. The Utes wouldn’t go quietly, making it an eight-point game with under 2 minutes remaining.

“Coach mentioned at halftime that we’re probably one of the best first-half teams in the country,” forward Andrej Jakimovski said of WSU, which has led at the half in 14 of its 15 games this season. “We made some mistakes, but we were focused on what we had to do.

“We’re working every day on closing games. I think it’s working. This game, we should learn from it and keep building from it.”

Roberts, a first-year Cougar out of UC San Diego, showed off his next-level range, making 5 of 9 from distance and scoring 11 of his 17 points in the second half. Roberts was coming off a 25-point outburst in WSU’s loss to Colorado on Thursday.

WSU’s Michael Flowers, another transfer guard, totaled 10 of his 12 points and five of his game-high six assists in the first half.

He dissected Utah’s defense on pick-and-roll plays, finding freshman big man Mouhamed Gueye gliding into the paint uncovered four times before the break.

“Mike’s really good in those pick-and-roll situations,” Smith said. “I think it’s just the evolution of playing together and getting comfortable. … We were able to spread the floor a little more and found those guys on the roll.”

Gueye scored 11 points on 5-of-6 shooting, but he didn’t score after halftime as the Utes adjusted their interior defense.

Utah was playing without Branden Carlson, a 7-footer who leads the team in scoring at 13.5 points per game.

Free-throw shooting (20 of 24), transition baskets off takeaways and late second-chance opportunities kept Utah in it.

The Utes – the Pac-12’s No. 2 most productive 3-point-shooting team – were held to 5 of 22 from distance and 35.3% from the floor en route to their fourth consecutive loss.

“Obviously, they were missing the centerpiece of their offense, but we were determined to not give up too many 3s,” Smith said.

WSU shot over 60% from the field in the first half and hit seven of its first 11 3-point attempts, but he finished the game shooting 44.8% overall and 12 of 30 from beyond the arc.

Jakimovski and guard Noah Williams hit timely baskets and turned in strong defensive efforts in the second half.

Jakimovski scored 10 points (3 of 5 on 3-pointers) and added seven boards, including three important offensive rebounds late. Williams – who missed the CU game and has only practiced once over the past two weeks because of COVID-19 protocols – scored 11 points to go with six rebounds and three assists.

“He’s our leader and we missed him against Colorado,” Jakimovski said of Williams. “Me, Noah and some other guys didn’t practice last week because we were positive, so it’s good to be back together and competing.”

The Cougars return to Pullman this week for a two-game homestand against the Bay Area schools. They’ll entertain Stanford at 2 p.m. Thursday in a game that was pushed back a day to make up for coronavirus-related postponements. WSU meets Cal at 1 p.m. Saturday at Beasley Coliseum.