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WSU Men's Basketball

Washington State routs visiting California for 84-65 win, extending win streak to six

PULLMAN — Somewhere along the line, Myles Rice became hesitant to launch from beyond the arc. Washington State’s point guard prides himself on the midrange, and he’s smart with the ball, which is why he’s flourished with the Cougars.

But he’s taking fewer than four deep balls per game this season. He’s clearly more comfortable from inside the arc. Some players are just that way.

“I’m not gonna shoot a shot if I don’t wanna shoot it,” Rice said. “If I think at that moment in time I don’t need to shoot that 3 ball, I probably won’t shoot it — or just any shot general.”

Someone must have gotten in Rice’s ear on Thursday, before he knocked down three triples in WSU’s 84-65 win over Cal. He canned all three of them in the Cougars’ second-half surge, which opened the door for their sixth straight win, exacting revenge for the Golden Bears’ overtime win last month in the Bay Area.

Rice totaled 25 points and senior forward Isaac Jones erupted for 21 points and 9 rebounds, a key reason why the Cougs (19-6, 10-4 Pac-12) shot 55% from the floor and ran away with this victory, their ninth in 10 tries. WSU also creeps within a half game back in the Pac-12 standings of Arizona — who the Cougs face next week.

“My teammates told me, you’re wide open, bro, just shoot it,” Rice said. “We work on it every day after practice. You just gotta have confidence in it. When I got the looks I got in the second half, I just pulled them, and they went in.”

They made this win over the Golden Bears possible, though, with their defense. WSU held Cal (10-15, 6-8) to just 38% shooting. The Cougs also allowed 25 fewer points than last month’s meeting, the loss that stands as the only bad loss on WSU’s NCAA Tournament resume. With this winning streak, Washington State continues to put that setback in the rearview mirror.

They gave the same treatment to Cal guard Jaylon Tyson and center Fardaws Aimaq, the duo that burned WSU a few weeks ago. In that game, Tyson popped for 30 points and Aimaq paired 18 points with 14 rebounds, pulling down key offensive rebounds and sticking them back. WSU had no answer underneath and paid for it dearly.

On Thursday, Tyson registered 18 points. Aimaq recorded 6 points and 11 rebounds. With those two limited, Cal had nearly nowhere to turn on offense, a key reason why the Golden Bears’ offense wasn’t the same beast it was in Berkeley.

“Just out-competing them,” said Jones, who has now scored in double figures in 11 straight games. “We know what they’re capable of. They’re the best players on their team. So we knew we could get the job done if we could take them out of the game. So that was the plan.”

“Tyson still scores, but 18 points on 15 shots — to be honest, we were pretty pleased,” Smith said. “That guy, you’re not gonna stop him from scoring. He got one three…. That guy’s gonna score, so that’s a good job on him.”

That’s a credit to two parts of Washington State’s defense, both on the individual and team level. WSU wing Jaylen Wells, who tallied 12 points, drew the assignment on Tyson and did a solid job staying in front of him. When he couldn’t, the Cougs did a nice job of protecting the rim, where the Golden Bears converted just 7 of 15 layups.

That’s where the return of WSU center Rueben Chinyelu came in handy for the Cougars. Because of an illness last week, he played limited minutes against Oregon State, then sat out entirely two days later against Oregon. WSU won both of those games, but the club missed Chinyelu’s defense, particularly around the basket.

He did not record a block on Thursday, but logging 15 minutes, he affected a number of shots at the basket. Smith credited the defense of forward Oscar Cluff, who swatted four shots — “I don’t think the common observer can understand how good Oscar Cluff was defensively,” Smith said — so combined, WSU enjoyed the kind of rim protection that matters more and more the deeper into the schedule you go.

“Rueben got back to doing some Rueben things at home,” Smith said.

It’s a Quad 3 win for WSU, which improves to 11-1 in Quads 3 and 4, rising to No. 38 in the NET rankings. The Cougars, who face Stanford on Saturday afternoon, have never been ranked so high in that ledger. With a win over the Cardinal, they might be in line for their first appearance in the AP Top 25 since 2008.

This win might not move the needle much in that way — WSU, off the bubble on most national bracket projections, was a 10-point favorite to beat Cal on KenPom — but for the Cougs, it’s another reminder: Things are changing. At this rate, they will make the NCAA Tournament and break a 16-year drought, still one of the longest in the country.

It’s provided a real change of scenery for Smith and the team. He opened his press conference Thursday by joking about the increased number of reporters in the room. He’s doing lots more interviews during the week. He wants his guys to stay focused, to tune out some of the outside noise, but he also recognizes the meaning of the moment.

This doesn’t happen often around Pullman.

For that reason, Smith wants his players to revel in this season, to enjoy the ride. It continues later this weekend.

“A lot of people, they don’t wanna see Wazzu win. That’s how I feel,” Rice said. “We do have the story, but at the same time, I still think, deep down, people don’t think we don’t belong out here, and we’re showing that we can compete with the best.”