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Sports >  WSU basketball

Mouhamed Gueye, TJ Bamba earn recognition from conference, lead surging Washington State team into Pac-12 tournament

March 7, 2023 Updated Wed., March 8, 2023 at 10:14 a.m.

LAS VEGAS – The driving force behind Washington State’s late-season push, according to coach Kyle Smith – is leadership provided by the Cougars’ two best players, post Mouhamed Gueye and guard TJ Bamba.

“They never wavered,” Smith said Tuesday. “I’m telling you – Mouhamed and TJ are very even-keel, well-balanced human beings, and they’re just bought-in to improving.

“You can see how much better they got over the course of the year, and our guys really look up to both of them.”

Gueye and Bamba are shining and the Cougars (16-15) are on fire. The duo spearheaded a resurgence for WSU, which won the final six games of its regular season and climbed into the top half of the Pac-12 standings.

“They put us in position to finish fifth with a lot of newcomers and injuries,” Smith said.

The fifth-seeded Cougars open their stay in the Pac-12 Tournament at 2:30 p.m. Wednesday against 12th-seeded California (3-28) at T-Mobile Arena.

Gueye and Bamba earned postseason accolades Tuesday from the conference’s coaches.

The 6-foot-11 Gueye settled into a starring role as a sophomore and landed on the All-Pac-12 first team. He averaged 14.5 points per game – almost doubling his freshman season scoring output. Gueye led WSU with 8.6 rebounds per game and developed as a passer, adding 1.9 assists per contest. The Senegal native recorded a conference-high 15 double-doubles. Gueye was also named an honorable mention all-defensive player.

Bamba earned an all-conference honorable mention nod. He made a name for himself as a reliable defender early in his WSU career, then developed into a standout scorer this year. The 6-5 junior, despite playing through a hand injury over the last 11 games of the season, finished eighth in the conference with a team-high 15.7 points per game.

“He could have made a case to be second team, I’d imagine,” Smith said. “It’s something for him to look forward to improving upon.”

The Cougars’ strongest perimeter defender, Bamba was left off the all-conference defensive team.

“I’d say Bamba is probably deserving there, too,” Smith said. “TJ probably got the short end of it, because he has such a big role, is so important for us defensively.”

Over the past three games, Bamba is averaging 25.7 points and shooting a blistering 60.9% from the field. He’s coming off a career day, a 36-point outburst in WSU’s 93-84 win at Washington on Thursday.

“Just maturity,” Smith said of the two leaders’ biggest improvement. “And it’s not just them. They’re leading the way, but those (other players) have fallen in line.”

Veteran forwards DJ Rodman and Andrej Jakimovski “have been great,” Smith said, steady pieces in the starting lineup – consistent defenders and aggressive rebounders who can get hot from 3-point range. Junior guard Justin Powell, a first-year Cougar, “really settled us down, playing point guard and becoming a better defender, and playing long minutes,” Smith said.

“Everyone embraced their roles and got better in their roles, and it allowed (Gueye and Bamba) to get better,” Smith said.

With its five starters clicking, WSU has shortened its rotation in recent weeks.

“The minutes have shrunk a little on the bench,” Smith said. “It’s more a function of, those first five are playing so well together on both sides of the ball. … That group’s really got a good feel. They’re really smart and they understand that we play through ‘Mo,’ we play through Bamba on offense, and the other guys are ready to make shots and do their job, and stay organized. It gives us our best chance to win.”

A month ago, WSU had a 10-15 record and its postseason hopes seemed buried. But the Cougars rallied with two wins over UW, a home sweep of the Oregon schools and a road sweep of Stanford and Cal.

The Cougars’ offense had its most productive Pac-12 game of the season in Seattle. WSU’s defense was stellar in the five games before its finale, holding its opponents to an average of 59.6 points per game. Suddenly, the Cougs’ postseason aspirations are alive.

“When we were 10-15, I said, ‘Stay the course,’ ” Smith said. “Even at our lowest moments, it wasn’t chaotic. I’ve been with teams where you’ll have a couple of guys that kind of want to fall off the truck. … No one did.”

WSU swept the Golden Bears, breezing to a 66-51 victory on Jan. 11 in Pullman and claiming a 63-57 win on Feb. 25 in Berkeley. Cal has lost 15 games in a row. The Bears sustained their share of blowout losses in the stretch, but they’ve also had several competitive outings – they took WSU, Washington, Arizona State and Oregon State to the wire. Cal is coming off a 69-66 loss Saturday at Oregon State.

“Cal, although they haven’t had the wins to show for it, is playing (well),” Smith said. “They played really well against Oregon State. They cause a lot of problems because they’re so big and athletic. … They bothered us. We had a hard time scoring against them.”

The Cougars are favored by 13½ points. With a win, WSU would advance to face fourth-seeded Oregon (18-13) in the quarterfinals. The Cougars and Ducks split the series this season. If WSU wins its first two games in Vegas, the Cougars would likely run into top-seeded UCLA in the semifinals.

“We’re just focusing on Cal,” Smith said. “We try to go one game at a time. They know what’s at stake. … We’ve been pretty good in March. We were good in the NIT (last year).

“We’ve been pretty good in the postseason. Hopefully, we can build some momentum, play well, find a way to win Wednesday, then take on Oregon and see what we can do.”

The Cougars saved their best basketball for late. They did the same last season, winning five of their last seven games to earn a bid to the NIT. WSU won three games during the invitational tourney before bowing out in the semifinals.

A win or two at the Pac-12 Tournament might be enough for WSU to secure a spot in the NIT. The Barking Crow, a reputable NIT bracketology site, has the Cougars in the field.

WSU sits at No. 70 in the NCAA’s NET rankings.

To qualify for the NCAA Tournament, the Cougars would need to make a spectacular run in Vegas and capture their first conference title trophy. Much is working in WSU’s favor.

The Cougars’ stars are playing at an elite level and WSU is the second-hottest team in the Pac-12 – behind second-ranked UCLA (27-4), which has won 10 games in a row. Even before their late-season surge, the Cougars proved they can compete with anyone. They toppled No. 8 Arizona in Tucson, gave seventh-ranked Baylor a test and lost by one point to UCLA on Dec. 30 in a game that WSU led for over 35 minutes.

The Cougs have the shooters to win high-scoring games. WSU finished the regular season first in the Pac-12 in 3-point makes and attempts (276 of 756) and came in second in 3-point percentage (36.5%).

One of the better defensive teams in the conference, WSU can also grind out low-scoring wins. The Cougars rank fourth in the Pac-12 in defensive efficiency.

And they can draw inspiration from the women’s team, which swept through the conference tournament last week as the No. 7 seed. The WSU women brought home their first conference title in program history, beating UCLA 65-61 on Sunday in the Pac-12 final.

“We watched the second half (on the women’s game) before we practiced on Sunday, and our guys were into it,” Smith said. “We know each other well. There’s not a harder-working team or coach that’s more deserving.

“They’re clocking their third straight NCAA Tournament, and they’re in the toughest league in the country. So, there’s a lot (for us) to look up to.”

Pac-12 awards

Regular-season champion UCLA received four of the top awards.

Forward Jaime Jaquez Jr. was named player of the year and Mick Cronin took home coach of the year. Guard Jaylen Clark earned defensive player of the year and post Adem Bona picked up freshman of the year honors. The most improved award went to Arizona big man Oumar Ballo, who previously played at Gonzaga.

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