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WSU Men's Basketball

No. 21 WSU’s win streak comes to end with 73-61 road loss to Arizona State

WSU forward Isaac Jones dribbles against the Arizona State defense during Saturday’s game in Tempe, Arizona.  (Courtesy of ASU Athletics)

TEMPE, Ariz. – Isaac Jones sat on the bench with his legs extended, sitting out of his Washington State team’s pregame warmups against Arizona State, taking the opportunity to rest. He was feeling under the weather, which is why he missed shootaround Saturday morning, joining guard Kymany Houinsou in that department.

As Jones watched his Cougars warm up at the Desert Financial Arena, music blaring and fans filing in, it became clear they weren’t exactly themselves. They were not 48 hours removed from their upset of No. 4 Arizona, one of the biggest wins in program history. Both Jones and Houinsou did play, acquitting themselves well at that, but it wasn’t enough to prevent No. 21 WSU from taking a 73-61 loss to Arizona State, a Quad 3 setback.

It’s the end of an eight-game winning streak for the Cougs, who got a team-best 16 points and 11 rebounds from Jones. For WSU, the bigger problems came on two other fronts: It lost 11 turnovers, including seven in the first 8 minutes, and it couldn’t win the battle on the glass, where ASU turned 11 offensive rebounds into 16 second-chance points.

That’s why Washington State (21-7, 12-5 Pac-12) fell back into second place in the Pac-12, its stay at the top over after less than two days. The Cougars played the majority of the game from behind, a departure from the norm, and in the second half, they couldn’t make their slim leads last.

“We got outplayed today, outcompeted,” said WSU coach Kyle Smith, whose Cougars shot 39% from the floor. “A little more of a hat tip to (ASU). I thought they came out from the get-go. We turned it over seven times in the first 8 minutes. Kind of got us on our heels. I thought we played better from there, but a lot of 50-50 balls, loose balls, they were able to come up with.”

WSU may have faced an uphill climb nearly all evening, but the visitors stayed close, too. The Cougs scored the first eight points of the second half, including four from guard Myles Rice, who followed his forgettable outing against Arizona with a 13-point outing against ASU. He used a three-point play to hand the Cougs a 38-36 lead.

They just couldn’t maintain it. With just under 7 minutes left, Washington State scored four straight points, including two Jones free throws to draw back within two. ASU guard Adam Miller followed with a corner 3-pointer – which the Cougars could have let exist on its own terms. Instead, it kick-started an 8-0 run. On the next trip, ASU big man Alonzo Gaffney ripped away an offensive rebound from WSU center Rueben Chinyelu and stuck it back.

With that stretch, the Cougs fell behind 10 with a shade under 3 minutes to play. That didn’t have to be an insurmountable lead. But it was because WSU couldn’t generate the shot-making it enjoyed two days prior. After scoring 27 points against Arizona, wing Jaylen Wells had an eight-point showing, including a scoreless second half.

Part of the problem plaguing WSU was that it didn’t get much offense from other players. Senior wing Andrej Jakimovski scored two points on 1-for-7 shooting from the field, including 0 for 4 on 3-pointers. Center Oscar Cluff posted three points, two rebounds and three turnovers. Smith also gave 16 minutes to freshman guard Isaiah Watts, his most since the second week of January, but Watts produced six points on five shots.

“We had a couple of guys I felt that, if it was a letter grade, we might have had a couple F’s,” Smith said. “You can compete with C’s. You might not have your best game, but we got a couple guys … so that makes it tough on who to play.”

Lots of WSU’s problems ran together. It was issue enough that they couldn’t make shots, including 3 of 18 from beyond the arc. It was another that because they didn’t have time to set their defense – usually a matchup zone they’ve used to flummox opponents – they had to play a little more man defense than usual. The Sun Devils beat that with pick-and-rolls and 1-on-1 scoring, using their quickness to beat the Cougs off the dribble.

If nothing else, it showed something WSU had played well enough to keep hidden: The Cougars are better team defenders than individual ones. They’re at their best switching and playing zone, not guarding at the point of attack in 1-on-1 scenarios. That’s where a few players picked up fouls, including Rice, Cluff and Chinyelu.

But a major factor was ASU guard Jose Perez, who scored 16 points, eight in the final 10 minutes. He tallied six of those at the free-throw line. He got to his spot around the basket, got WSU defenders in the air with head-fakes, then leaned into them for shooting fouls.

“Perez is crafty, and we put him at the foul eight times,” Smith said. “That was a big part of the scout, not (fouling). He’s gonna get in some situations at the end of the clock, 1-on-1, and we left our feet and he got it.”

The Cougs did force a couple of misses, but they couldn’t complete the sequence with rebounds. ASU, which ranks ninth from last in the country in offensive rebound percentage, grabbed 11 against WSU. WSU just couldn’t secure stops when it needed them most.

“We haven’t played that much (from behind), so that was a little weird,” Jones said. “I think it forced us to learn we gotta play with more energy.”

Still, the sky isn’t falling for the Cougars, who have earned some meaningful wiggle room on their NCAA Tournament chances. After their win over the Wildcats, most national projections pegged them for a fifth, sixth or seventh seed. WSU’s chances at playing games at the Spokane site might have taken a hit – it likely needs to earn a No. 4 seed or better to do so – but that opportunity hasn’t slipped away entirely either.

Washington State closes the regular season with three straight home games: Thursday against USC, March 2 against UCLA and March 7 against rival Washington. The Cougs also get a chance to win games at the Pac-12 Tournament, which would boost their seeding outlook in an even bigger way.

“I wanna talk about all that kind of stuff,” Smith said, referring to his team’s hot streak and national rise, “but it’s like, stay present. Help me here. Stay with this team. Everyone and their families, everyone wants to talk about what’s next. It’s hard. Being good is hard, and being great is really hard.”