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WSU Men's Basketball

To beat Cal in rematch, WSU will need to shore up its defense — and late-game execution

Washington State wing Jaylen Wells drives to the basket last Thursday against Oregon State.  (Courtesy of WSU Athletics)

PULLMAN – On an overcast day last month in the Bay Area, Wayne Hunter worked with Washington State players on their defense. The Cougars were one day away from facing California and star guard Jaylon Tyson, so the WSU assistant wanted to make sure his team knew how to defend Tyson.

For a good chunk of the off-day practice, the Cougs worked hard on their individual defense, learning about Tyson’s tendencies and how to guard them. They knew if they limited Tyson, they could to take down the Golden Bears.

Roughly 24 hours later, Tyson scored 30 points in Cal’s overtime win over Washington State. The Cougs squandered a seven-point lead inside of 2 minutes to play. They took a Quad 3 loss, a real blight on their resume for the NCAA Tournament, which they haven’t reached in 16 years.

“Hat tip to their coach and staff, having them ready,” WSU coach Kyle Smith said. “I don’t think they’re gonna change too much. I think they’re really locked in. Really playing their high-end talent. I think Tyson’s an NBA player.”

In the teams’ rematch, set for 7 p.m. Thursday in Pullman, WSU will need to do a couple of things differently. The Cougs will need to slow Tyson. They will also need to close the game better – if it comes down to crunch time.

In recent weeks, Washington State (18-6, 9-4) has improved on both fronts, at least in some ways. To beat Washington a couple of weeks ago, the Cougs went to overtime, where they avoided the mistakes that cost them the Cal loss and converted on the offensive looks that eluded them.

They’ve simply been better in close games. WSU proved it in its past two games, wins over Oregon State and Oregon, both on the road. The Cougars closed out their win over the Beavers by getting two clutch 3-pointers from senior wing Andrej Jakimovski and timely free throws from Myles Rice. They beat Oregon by securing huge stops and, again, with efficient free-throw shooting.

Part of that involves the maturation of Rice, the six-time Pac-12 Freshman of the Week. He isn’t just WSU’s best player. He has also blossomed into the team’s leader – the “quarterback,” to use Smith’s words.

“The better Myles has gotten, the better we’ve been,” Smith said, “and to have a quarterback that can close out a game is very, very vital to being really good. They’re gonna win close games. I think he’s had some hiccups, but he’s also made more plays than not.”

Then there’s the development of guys like Jakimovski and fellow wing Jaylen Wells, both of whom have grown as rebounders and defenders. Their best attributes might be their shooting – Jakimovski shoots 36% on 3-pointers, Wells 45% – but with 6-foot-8 frames, they’ve taken pride on the defensive side of the ball.

That has unlocked their ability to win tight games, especially on the road.

“They have a belief that they can get it done,” Smith said. “And once you do it, you’re like OK, you relax. You might get popped – kind of did against Cal. But they make plays, and more than that, I think we put ourselves in positions to win.”

The Cougs’ defense is also rounding back into shape. They have allowed point totals of 58 and 56 in their past two outings. A game before that, a win over Washington, they allowed 87 (albeit in overtime). The common denominator: associate head coach Jim Shaw, who missed the UW game with a medical scare.

In effect the team’s defensive coordinator, Shaw takes pride in his group’s defense like no other coach on Smith’s staff. For the season, WSU is allowing opponents to register an effective field-goal percentage of just 46%, which ranks No. 20 nationally.

How does that come into play against Cal? It starts with defending Tyson, of course, but also guarding center Fardaws Aimaq, a 6-11 bruiser who burned WSU for 18 points and 14 rebounds in January.

Point guard Jalen Cone, a transfer from Northern Arizona, also tagged the Cougs for 15 points, hitting three 3-pointers.

“He’s my human cheat code there,” Smith said of Shaw. “His record speaks for itself, as a head coach and an assistant. I give him a lot of responsibility, so not having him there is an adjustment.”

That’s also to say nothing about this game’s impact on WSU’s NCAA Tournament chances.

California will enter Thursday’s game ranked No. 125 in the NET rankings, which would mean a Quad 3 win for WSU if it comes to fruition. That would help the Cougs improve to 11-1 in Quads 3 and 4.

It would also help Washington State vault up the Pac-12 standings. The Cougs will head into Thursday’s game one game back of No. 5 Arizona.