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WSU Men's Basketball

Isaiah Watts comes up clutch as No. 19 WSU erases double-digit deficit to clip USC 75-72

PULLMAN — The first hint Isaiah Watts picked up on was a grin from associate head coach Jim Shaw. Washington State was in the locker room, celebrating a 75-72 home win over USC Thursday night, and the freshman guard Watts noticed that Shaw, the team’s defensive guru, was in a good mood.

“Never seen him smile,” Watts said.

Before he knew it, Shaw was leaning in to kiss the forehead of Watts, who canned a 3-pointer in crunch time to give the Cougars their first lead of the game, totaling a career-high 18 points as the hosts erased a double-digit deficit to earn their second win over the Trojans this season.

“I wasn’t even ready. I tried to dodge it,” Watts laughed. “I didn’t know what he was gonna do. He kissed me, and it meant a lot, especially from Coach Shaw. He’s not a very emotional guy.”

With this win, the Cougs brought the emotions out of the emotionless. One possession after Watts’ bomb, junior wing Jaylen Wells connected on his own catch-and-shoot trey, good for a four-point lead with a shade over a minute to play. The Cougs nearly gave it away — Wells then missed two free throws, giving the Trojans a chance to tie the game, instead clanging two tries from deep — but they sewed it up, drawing back within a half-game of first place in the Pac-12 standings.

WSU has also secured a top-four seed and a first-round bye at the Pac-12 Tournament, which means the Cougs will play their first game on March 14, a Thursday.

“The way it just hit my hands — and this is (nothing) cocky, confident — the way it hit my hands was just so perfect,” said Watts, who hit 5 of 6 triples. “It was just like, it kind of had to go up. So yeah, I really couldn’t tell you what really went on. But I just knew that I had to shoot it.”

For the second time in three games, Wells came up huge when it mattered most, following his 3-pointer with two free throws to hand the Cougars a 75-71 lead with 36 seconds left. On the other end, USC guard Isaiah Collier drew a foul and went to the line, where he sunk 1 of 2 shots, helping his group claw within 75-72 with 23 seconds to play.

That’s when things got dicey for the Cougars (22-7, 13-5 Pac-12). Wells missed two free throws, opening the door for USC to tie the game on the other end. The Trojans got two good looks from deep, but both went off the rim, allowing the Cougars to escape with a Quad 2 victory.

“It was just a really good win that should give us some confidence to just keep moving forward,” said WSU coach Kyle Smith, whose group faces UCLA on Saturday afternoon. “You get down (12) and being able to win those just gives you a belief, and hopefully we can stay away from getting down (12).”

WSU got a key 18 points from senior wing Andrej Jakimovski, who delivered four triples, and 16 points from Rice, who chased a mistake-filled first half with late driving layup to help the Cougars draw within two with three minutes to play. Wells totaled 13 points, bouncing back from his forgettable eight-point showing over the weekend against Arizona State.

It’s a breath of fresh air for the Cougs, who were coming off a disappointing 73-61 setback to ASU on Saturday, a Quad 2 loss that took some air out of their sails. WSU needed to rest up — both forward Isaac Jones and reserve guard Kymany Houinsou sat out of that morning’s shootaround feeling under the weather, and Houinsou was throwing up in the locker room after Thursday’s game, Smith said — and respond.

This win certainly qualifies for WSU, which drew added confidence because of what it overcame to earn it. The Cougs lost nine of their 14 turnovers in the first half, including five in two minutes in one sluggish stretch. They were unable to navigate the Trojans’ zone defense, which remained true well into the final minutes of the game — until WSU surged out of it.

“We got some good looks,” Smith said. “We slipped Kymany in there, and he operates really well in the high post, and he got Andrej a wide-open shot, got Myles a wide-open shot.”

For the Cougs, it’s encouraging because for a long while, they looked like the same team that saw an early deficit turn into a loss against the Sun Devils. Turnovers plagued them early, and Rice looked vulnerable, coughing up four of his six turnovers in the first half, the fifth time in six games he’s committed at least four. He struggled to contain the physicality of Collier, who totaled 24 points, zipping by Rice for a couple buckets too.

WSU also encountered a dilemma at center that might surface again. The Cougs gave the starting nod to freshman Rueben Chinyelu over Oscar Cluff, hoping to leverage Chinyelu’s athleticism and shot-blocking against USC forward Joshua Morgan. Instead, Chinyelu’s lack of shooting purged the floor of spacing, which is a big reason why Jones scored just 6 points, his first time scoring in single figures since Jan. 4.

WSU couldn’t get the ball to Jones, and even when he caught it, he faced quick double teams. He lost four turnovers for largely that reason, allowing the Trojans to swarm him and get out in transition, where they posted 10 points, answering each WSU run with one of their own.

That the Cougs ended that trend is a testament to their shot-making. WSU connected on 10 of 20 triples, a sizzling mark of 50%. Jakimovski made 4 of 10, his most attempts from deep in nearly a full calendar year, including one to trim the Cougs’ deficit to two. Wells tried just two long balls, his fewest in more than a month, but he bottomed the one that mattered most.

“He works at it, and he’s earned that confidence that he has,” Smith said of Wells. “It’s not an accident. He’s a believer.”

Also worth mentioning in more detail is the resurgence of Rice, who looked headed for another stinker in Thursday’s first half. Instead, he totaled 16 points and knocked down a few key jumpers in the second half.

Rice’s first half: 6 points (3/6 FG), 3 rebounds, 2 assists, 4 turnovers, -5

Rice’s second half: 10 points (3/6 FG, 4/4 FT), 1 rebound, 6 assists, 2 turnovers, 1 steal, +7

WSU needs that out of Rice, the team’s leader in more ways than one, producing on the court and steadying his teammates off it. He may be just a redshirt freshman, but his teammates look to him to steer them in the right direction, which is why it’s important that he shook off such a lackluster first 20 minutes.

He’ll get another chance to do so on Saturday. The Cougs will just hope he can avoid first halves like Thursday’s.