PULLMAN – A shorthanded Washington State team got back to basics Saturday, leaning on its strengths to close out a seesaw Pac-12 game and claim what coach Kyle Smith called a “gratifying win.”
The Cougars’ defense locked in down the stretch, corralled a number of crucial rebounds in crunch time and turned the ball over only twice in the second half of their 65-57 victory over Cal at Beasley Coliseum.
“We chant it before we hit the court every game,” Smith said of his program’s tenets: “Defend, rebound and take care of the ball.”
WSU (10-7, 3-3), coming off a second-half flop versus Stanford, didn’t shoot particularly well, connecting on 39.3% of its attempts from the field and 6 of 22 from distance.
But the Cougars committed a season-low six turnovers, finished plus-seven on the boards and pestered Cal’s scorers into hasty shots. The Bears (9-9, 2-5) went 21 of 53 from the floor and finished 5 of 20 on 3-point tries.
“Coach said at halftime that we have to be the tougher team if we want to win, and I think we were,” WSU forward Andrej Jakimovski said. “We played hard defense. We got some really good offensive rebounds.”
They matched a season high with 13 of them, in fact – two coming during their breakaway push late.
WSU didn’t separate from the Golden Bears until the waning moments. Clutch 3s from Jakimovski and guard Michael Flowers, and an open-lane jam from freshman post Mouhamed Gueye pulled the Cougars ahead by eight with about 1:30 left, but Cal’s Jordan Shepherd hit a 3-pointer in response.
From there, the Bears failed to score, WSU controlled the glass and wrapped things up from the foul line, sending Cal to its fourth consecutive loss.
The Cougars led by seven on a couple of occasions, yet Cal consistently had an answer for any WSU spurt in a contest that featured 11 ties, 11 lead changes and no clear advantage for either side throughout.
“We played in so many close games and came up short,” Smith said. “We got up seven with 5 minutes to go, tried to rally the troops. Next thing I know, it’s two. But our guys battled back, made some really good plays down the stretch.”
As he’s done so often this year, Jakimovski provided a spark off the bench. He led the Cougars with 16 points on 6-of-11 shooting – he hit four of his first five 3-point attempts – and added seven boards. Flowers shot 8 of 9 from the free-throw line and contributed 13 points.
Guard Tyrell Roberts added five assists and Noah Williams scored seven points, hitting three decisive free throws in the final 51 seconds and grabbing a pair of important rebounds late.
“There were just a lot of plays,” Smith said. “Individual guys I thought really played within themselves and we played like a team.”
Big men Efe Abogidi and Gueye recorded nine points apiece. Five of Gueye’s eight rebounds came on the offensive end.
The Cougars were playing without injured center Dishon Jackson (eye), and forwards Matt DeWolf and DJ Rodman (COVID-19 protocols). Abogidi and Gueye were both tagged with their fourth fouls with over 8 minutes remaining.
“We were just trying to survive, to be honest,” Smith said of his club’s frontcourt limitations. “I was worried about the foul situation. We used nine out of 10 fouls – that’s all we had. I didn’t know what the next step was. It was going to be (Williams) playing center, and I don’t know how we were gonna get a stop or rebound.”
But Abogidi and Gueye held up underneath against Cal’s bulky bodies.
Andre Kelly, 6-foot-9 and 255 pounds, totaled 12 points and 14 rebounds for the Bears before fouling out with 51 seconds left. Shepherd paced Cal with 17 points.
WSU maintained a slim lead behind strong defense and an eight-point spree from Abogidi in the first half before a 7-0 rally put the Bears ahead by two at halftime.
The Cougars have led at halftime in all but two of their games this season. They’ve been prone to second-half collapses.
“To be honest, we were fed up,” Abogidi said. “It’s been how many games? They’re all close and we keep fumbling the ball around the court. The coaches and players decided this wasn’t going to happen again. We came out and played the right way.”
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