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Sports >  WSU basketball

Washington State basketball: Heading into Pac-12’s most challenging road trip, Cougars leaning on defense and junior playmakers

Feb. 1, 2023 Updated Wed., Feb. 1, 2023 at 8:31 p.m.

Road games haven’t produced much fortune for Washington State. Games in Los Angeles haven’t yielded much luck for visiting teams.

The Cougars (10-13, 5-7), who have a 2-10 record this season in games played outside of their home state, are gearing up for the Pac-12’s most challenging road trip – a weekend series at the L.A. schools, which boast a combined 21-1 record at home.

WSU will aim for its first win at USC since February 2015 when the teams meet at 8 p.m. Thursday at Galen Center. WSU squares off against No. 9 UCLA at 4 p.m. Saturday at Pauley Pavilion. The Cougars’ most recent road win over the Bruins came in February 2009, when Klay Thompson was a WSU freshman. WSU has lost 12 straight games at Pauley Pavilion.

Despite the history and their opponents’ track record in L.A., the Cougars have some reason to feel optimistic about their odds. While WSU’s results on the road have been disappointing overall, the Cougars stunned No. 5 Arizona in Tucson on Jan. 7 to break the Wildcats’ 28-game winning streak at the McKale Center.

The Cougars know they can match up well against the L.A. schools. WSU led UCLA for 38 minutes before a late cold stretch in a one-point loss to the Bruins on Dec. 30 in Pullman. Two days later, the Cougars snapped a 12-game skid in their series with USC, winning 81-71 at home.

USC is 4-2 since its loss at Beasley Coliseum, including a 77-64 win over UCLA on Thursday. The Trojans (15-6, 7-3) are 10-1 this season at Galen Center – their lone home loss came in their season opener against Florida Gulf Coast.

The Bruins (17-4, 8-2), unbeaten at home, saw their 14-game winning streak come to an end last week, when they lost road games to Arizona and USC. UCLA entertains Washington on Thursday.

WSU is coming off a 75-58 win over Arizona State on Saturday, which snapped a three-game slide. The Cougars’ defense has been bright over the past three games, holding ASU and Colorado under 60 points and limiting Arizona’s offense to 63 points – the third-lowest scoring output of the season for the Wildcats, who have a top-10 offense nationally (82.9 ppg).

“The last three games, we really defended well,” WSU coach Kyle Smith said Tuesday during his weekly coach’s show.

“That’s a good place to start. We’ve played really hard. Now, we gotta play hard and smart.”

WSU’s defense ranks 54th in the nation, according to’s efficiency ratings. The Trojans have the No. 50 offense and No. 45 defense in the country, and the Bruins rank 20th on offense and fourth on defense, per the site.

Defense fueled by Bamba’s return

WSU lacked its best perimeter defender for three games while junior guard TJ Bamba dealt with a hand injury. Bamba returned to the lineup Jan. 22 at Colorado and has given the Cougars’ defense a lift.

“We need him, because of his defense,” Smith said. “Since he came back, our defense has been great. … He’s going to have to manage playing with the (injured) hand. It’s probably affecting his shooting a little bit. He says no, which I love about him, but he’s certainly having to play with a little pain.”

Bamba doubles as WSU’s leading scorer (14.6 points per game), but he’s still finding his shooting touch after a couple of weeks on the sideline. Bamba scored a combined 17 points on 4-of-18 shooting from the field last week.

Powell comes off two strong performances

WSU guard Justin Powell put together perhaps his most impressive week of the year against the Arizona schools, scoring a combined 35 points on 13-of-25 shooting from the field to go with 12 rebounds.

“I thought he had his best weekend for us,” Smith said of the junior Tennessee transfer. “He’s getting more consistent on everything. It’s a big challenge. He only played, I wanna say, 11 minutes per game at Tennessee … and in a different role, like eighth or ninth man.

“He wanted a bigger role and it takes time to go from 11 minutes per game to 35 minutes per game, to have the ball in your hands all the time.”

Powell averages 10.6 points per game – third on the team – and shoots 40% from 3-point range. He ranks 29th nationally with a 2.7 assist-to-turnover ratio.

“He’s really taken on a lot of that responsibility,” Smith said of Powell’s distribution. “We’re missing one guy that can get into the paint and find (Powell) for some shots, because he’s a really good shooter. A little help back there would really benefit him.”

Forward Andrej Jakimovski also had his “best game as a Coug” on Saturday in the 75-58 win over the Sun Devils, Smith said. The junior scored a career-high 22 points, shooting 5 of 10 on 3-pointers.

Jakimovski missed the first 10 games of the season with a foot injury, but quickly recaptured his starting role upon recovering. He’s provided WSU with a strong defender on the wing who can pile up points in bursts.

“He has had a good swagger, a good confidence about him all year,” Smith said. “Even though he’s been hurt, you can tell he’s got good self-confidence. He’s gone through the last two years. That’s kind of how it goes – you work hard, you take your lumps a little bit, and now he’s delivering them.”

Jakimovski, one of the Cougars’ most experienced players, averages 7.0 points and 3.8 rebounds per game. He shoots 39% on 3-pointers .

WSU leads the Pac-12 in 3-point makes (8.6 per game) and percentage (36%). The Cougars hit 14 of 56 attempts during their three-game losing streak. Carried by Powell and Jakimovski, WSU went 14 of 34 in the win over ASU.

Entertaining big-man matchups

WSU post Mouhamed Gueye, a 6-11 sophomore, recorded 12 points and three blocks during the Cougars’ win over USC last month. The Trojans have augmented their frontcourt since with the addition of 7-1 freshman Vincent Iwuchukwu, who missed several months after collapsing on the court during an informal team practice in July.

Iwuchukwu has averaged 11.3 minutes over the past five games. He’s splitting time with 6-11 junior Joshua Morgan, who ranks 10th in the nation in blocks (52). Morgan was held to 10 points, five rebounds and no blocks in the first meeting with WSU.

“(Gueye) played really well against SC, against one of the best shot-blockers,” Smith said. “Now, they got Vincent.”

On Saturday, Gueye will face off for the second time against UCLA’s 6-10 Adem Bona. The two played together at Prolific Prep in California.

Gueye won the matchup on Dec. 30, totaling 18 points and 18 rebounds against Bona’s seven points and seven boards.

“They are really good around the rim with those big guys,” Smith said of the L.A. schools. “But where ‘Mo’ had success was facing up and pulling them out (of the paint). He was really good against UCLA. He and Bona were teammates at Prolific Prep. I’m sure there was some motivation on both parts.”

Gueye recorded a double-double in each of the past two games following his first scoreless game of the year in the loss at Colorado. Gueye is second on the team in scoring (13.3 ppg) and first in rebounding (8.3), with nine double-doubles on the season.

In the NET

WSU sits at No. 68 in the NCAA’s NET rankings. The Cougars are the highest-ranked team with a losing record.

The ranking probably owes to WSU’s difficult schedule – one of the nation’s toughest – and a handful of impressive wins, along with the competitive nature of the team in close losses to opponents such as Baylor, UNLV, UCLA and Arizona.

The Trojans rank 56th in the NET, while the Bruins are fifth. The Cougars are hoping to pick up a Quadrant 1 win or two – resume-boosters in the eyes of the NCAA. Road games against top-75 NET teams qualify as Quad 1. WSU is 1-9 in Quad 1 games.

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