Washington State takes five-game winning streak west for rivalry matchup with Washington
March 1, 2023 Updated Thu., March 2, 2023 at 2:11 a.m.
PULLMAN – Washington State’s winning streak has reached five games. If the Cougars leave Seattle victorious this week, they’d achieve a rare distinction.
Only four WSU teams have won six conference games in a row since the Pac-8 was established in 1968.
It’s been 30 years since the Cougs’ last six-game streak in conference play.
The Cougars’ hot streak began Feb. 11, when they pushed past visiting Washington 56-51. The rivals meet again at 8 p.m. Thursday for their regular-season finale at Alaska Airlines Arena.
“It’d be a huge win for our program,” WSU coach Kyle Smith said.
After claiming its fifth win over UW in the past seven meetings, WSU (15-15, 10-9 Pac-12) swept the Oregon schools in Pullman and won tightly contested games at Stanford and Cal. WSU improved to 3-8 on the road.
“That Stanford game was huge,” Smith said. “We hadn’t been playing well on the road, then we got that and we were able to hang on against Cal. We’ve got an opportunity to get an 11th win in league, which would be incredible.”
With a win Thursday, WSU would clinch its third consecutive winning regular season, lock up its second straight season with a winning record in Pac-12 play and head into the conference tournament well-stocked with momentum.
Depending on this weekend’s results, the Cougars can be either the fifth, sixth or seventh seed in the Pac-12 Tournament.
“This group has a little synergy now,” Smith said. “Those guys trust each other. You can see it on both ends.
“If we’re not shooting the ball well, we can still dig deep and make some plays and know what we’re doing defensively. … They’re pretty connected. Hopefully, we can keep it going.”
Smith pointed to ball security and defense as the primary factors in WSU’s winning streak. The Cougars are averaging just 8.6 turnovers over the past five games. They have held each of the past five opponents to 65 or fewer points. WSU’s defense ranks 55th nationally, according to KenPom.com’s analytics.
“In the last 10 games, according to (assistant) John Andrzejek, we have defended like the 13th-best team in the country,” Smith said Tuesday during his weekly coach’s show. “It’s tied to having six guys that can really play 30 minutes per game, take care of the ball and get good shots.”UW’s offense ranks 196th nationally, per KenPom.com, but the Huskies (16-14, 8-11) rank 52nd nationally in defensive efficiency.
The Huskies rank fourth in the Pac-12 with 13.1 turnovers forced per game and lead the conference in 3-point percentage defense (29.3%). WSU has leaned heavily on 3-point shooting all season.“Statistically, they’re one of the better defensive teams in the league and in the country,” Smith said. “They really defend the 3.”
The Cougars shot 29.3% from the field in their first meeting with the Huskies, but they outrebounded UW 47-35 and limited standouts Keion Brooks Jr. and Keyon Menifield to a combined 12 points on 5-of-24 shooting from the floor. The two are averaging 32.3 points per game combined over the past four games.
Husky guard Noah Williams, who spent the past three seasons at WSU, led UW in scoring in the first meeting with 12 points. Williams is questionable to play Thursday due to a lower-body injury that has kept him sidelined for the past three games.
UW won its next three games after the loss in Pullman, then lost 81-69 at Stanford on Sunday. The Huskies have a 12-5 record on their home court.
“They’ve got a great atmosphere. It’s loud and it’s kind of why you play college basketball,” Smith said. “(The Huskies) will have a lot of energy and emotion.”
WSU leaders taking control
The Cougars’ two best players, guard TJ Bamba and post Mouhamed Gueye, are producing big numbers and guiding their team to a strong finish.
Despite playing through a lingering hand injury, Bamba tallied 41 points on 57.7% shooting over the past two games. The junior came up clutch against Stanford and Cal, scoring 31 points in the second halves of those games.
“His confidence is so strong and he’s willing to bet on himself and try to get better, and prove he’s not afraid to make mistakes,” Smith said of Bamba. “He’s been playing with a bum hand for a while and kinda managing that deal. Hopefully, it’s getting better. But he seems to be playing well.”
Gueye is averaging 18.2 points, 10.2 rebounds and 2 assists per game while shooting 58.6% from the field during WSU’s winning streak. The 6-foot-11 sophomore has recorded a double-double in three consecutive games. He leads the Pac-12 and ranks 12th nationally with 14 double-doubles. ESPN considers Gueye to be the No. 52 prospect in this year’s NBA draft class.
“He’s just really growing and understanding the game,” Smith said. “He had to go through the process where (teams) were doubling him every time and he was a bit of a turnover machine. That’s part of growing and figuring it out … and learning to be the focal point.
“The biggest thing is since Jan. 1, he has 36 assists and 35 turnovers,” Smith added. “On the offensive end, he’s really stepped it up. And the better he gets, he kinda drags everyone with him because we’re playing through him so much. I think he’s ascending toward the finish line like the great ones do and I’m just looking forward to him giving his best effort on Thursday.”
Cougs prevailing in close games
At the end of January, WSU had a 2-8 record in games decided by less than 10 points. But the Cougs seem to have figured out how to persevere in tight games. Four of WSU’s last five wins have come by single digits.
“We’ve just learned how to handle success a little better, playing with a lead,” Smith said on the coach’s show. “Now, the next thing is to learn how to get a little more of what we call a cutthroat mentality and try to finish those games off earlier. We gotta stretch the lead. It’s part of the process of becoming a good program, but I’m really proud of the way we’ve played the last five, for sure.”
Center Adrame Diongue has missed the past four games with a hand injury.
“He’s progressing,” Smith said. “I think we should have him (Thursday), but it’s a hand deal and it’s kinda hard to play. You gotta have both hands to be effective.”
Diongue, a 7-foot freshman, has been the primary backup to Gueye this season. A defensive and rebounding specialist, he averages 1.4 points, 1.9 rebounds and ranks second on the team with 12 blocks. With Diongue sidelined, the Cougars have asked former WSU football player Jack Wilson to come off the bench for a couple of minutes per game. Wilson scored his first-career basket on Saturday at Stanford.
Smith was also asked for an update on guard Myles Rice and center Dishon Jackson, both of whom have been sidelined for the entire season. Rice is battling Hodgkin’s lymphoma and Jackson is dealing with an unspecified medical issue. Both players are still active with the team and watch games from the bench.
“They’re both progressing and doing well,” Smith said. “We’re anticipating, hopefully, having them both back next year. Obviously, there’ll be some rust on them. … The most important thing is it seems things are going well.”
Rice would have been in the mix for point guard responsibilities this season. He announced his cancer diagnoses in late September. Jackson was projected to be the team’s starting center. He announced Sept. 26 that he’d be sidelined indefinitely.
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