Even in Washington State’s best moments Thursday night, in the stretches where the Cougars looked best on the road against Oregon State, they could never quite open up a comfortable lead.
Not when Jaylen Wells hit his first six 3-pointers of the game. Not when the visitors finally started earning trips to the free-throw line in the second half. Not even when Isaac Jones got going late in the game.
Instead, WSU pulled away from Oregon State for a 64-58 win in Corvallis, Oregon, when senior wing Andrej Jakimovski knocked down two key 3-pointers, the last of which handed the Cougars a nine-point lead inside the final 2 minutes. It was the Cougars’ fourth straight victory and seventh in eight tries.
It’s a Quad 3 win for WSU (17-6, 8-4 Pac-12), which got a Division-I career-high 24 points from Wells, who scored 18 of his points in the first half. Jakimovski totaled a career-best five 3-pointers for 15 points and Jones roared to life in the second half, recording 10 of his 12 points.
“He closed it out like you hope a senior does on the road,” WSU coach Kyle Smith said, referring to Jakimovski. “Big-time execution.”
Jakimovski’s 3-pointer could hardly have come at a better time for Washington State, which wraps up this road swing Saturday afternoon at Oregon. The first came just inside the 3-minute mark, handing the Cougars a 59-53 lead. On their next possession, he hit another, good for a 62-53 advantage with 2 minutes left.
WSU wobbled a bit in the final moments. In the last 90 seconds, Wells pulled down a key rebound, only to save it to the Beavers, who hit a 3-pointer. But it went down as a win for the Cougs, who avoided what would have been a bad loss by making key free throws, including two from guard Myles Rice.
The story of the game, though, was Wells. The transfer from Division-II Sonoma State hit each of his first six 3-pointers, a stretch that helped WSU open up a six-point lead in the first half. He also had a steal for a breakout dunk, and he created two of his own shots, one a step-back midrange look and the other a crossover into a 3.
Without Wells’ production, it might have gone differently for WSU. The Cougars made 11 3-pointers. They made 11 shots inside the arc. At least for the first 30 minutes or so, if Wells wasn’t involved, it was an offensive struggle for Washington State.
That even went for Rice, who totaled eight points and got dinged for a Flagrant 1 in the second half, hitting OSU guard Jordan Pope in the face with his off arm.
For his part, Rice made up for it. Inside the final 4 minutes, he drove into the paint and sank a one-footed runner, good for a 56-51 lead. He missed all three 3-pointers he tried, but he also totaled four rebounds and six assists, finding shooters like Wells and Jakimovski at the right times.
It’s an outing like this that underscores the importance of Wells’ development. Rice, the team’s second-leading scorer, may not have it going every game.
That places extra importance on shot-creation, which the Cougs are light on, at least on the perimeter. Wells has filled that need, and the more he scores like he did Thursday night, the more it seems like he can keep it up.
What made a meaningful difference in this one: Each teams’ shooting from deep. For the game, the Cougars made 11 of 23 from beyond the arc. The Beavers went 3-for-12. It came at an opportune time for WSU, which converted just 3 of 16 layups, sometimes bothered at the rim by Oregon State’s long post players.
It’s also the 250th career win for Smith, whose ability to make the most of roster turnover this season has stood out. Two starters (Jones from Idaho and Wells from Sonoma State) came from lower levels. Another, Rice, spent last season recovering from Hodgkin’s lymphoma. The Cougs have also rotated starting Oscar Cluff, a junior-college transfer, and Rueben Chinyelu, a true freshman who has blossomed into one of the conference’s premier shot-blockers.
Now WSU gets a chance to really boost its resume for the NCAA Tournament, which it hasn’t reached since 2008. The Cougars have a chance to secure their fourth Quad 1 win of the season with a road matchup against Oregon.
“On the road,” Smith said, “that’s quite the effort.”