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WSU Men's Basketball

To beat UCLA, WSU wants more from Isaiah Watts, who scored a career-high against USC

PULLMAN – Around the time Washington State coach Kyle Smith was discussing his group’s latest win, a come-from-behind victory over USC Thursday night that helped the Cougars improve their NCAA Tournament stock, the coach of his team’s next opponent was busy wondering which of his players he’s interested in retaining.

That would be UCLA coach Mick Cronin, whose Bruins come to Pullman for a Saturday game. They dropped their third straight on Thursday night, a defensive disaster of a 94-77 loss to Washington, a setback so frustrating for Cronin that he talked openly about which of his players are worth building around in the years to come.

“I’m trying to figure out who I can build a program with – that’s what I told them,” Cronin said, according to the Los Angeles Times. “You can’t build a program with guys that won’t fight.”

That’s the state of WSU’s next foe. The Cougars will enter the game after an inspiring win over the Trojans. The Bruins will enter off perhaps their most discouraging loss of the season, allowing the Huskies to connect on 15 of 24 3-pointers, the kind of defensive breakdown that also plagued them in their previous game, a loss to rival USC.

That will be the challenge for Washington State (22-7, 13-5 Pac-12), one-half game back of first place in the conference: How can the Cougs avoid replicating what happened last week – following a huge win with a disappointing loss – and top the Bruins?

“That’s kind of what you need this time of year – some emerging talent,” Smith said.

If that’s the case, Isaiah Watts certainly qualifies. The Cougs’ true freshman guard came off the bench Thursday night for a career-high 18 points, knocking down 5 of 6 3-pointers, including one to hand his team its first lead of the game in the final stretch. He’s best as a catch-and-shoot and movement shooter, making 3-pointers that get the crowd going.

He did that and more against USC. He knocked down his first 3 on the move, shaking USC defender Oziyah Sellers with a jab to the left and a shot to the right. He followed that up by punishing Sellers for going under a screen, rising up from the top of the key for another 3-pointer, that one to draw the Cougars within one point midway through the first half.

Later in the first half, he gave the same treatment to USC star guard Isaiah Collier, who went under a dribble-handoff screen from WSU forward Isaac Jones, who shuffled it to Watts on the wing. Watts did the rest, hitting another 3-pointer to trim the Trojans’ lead to nine.

Watts kept it going in the second half. For his first bucket, he stepped past a screen and inside the arc, where he made the Trojans pay for their drop coverage by rising up for a jumper that cut USC’s lead to seven. Moments later, WSU guard Myles Rice handed it off in transition to Watts, who hit one from 1 foot behind the arc, igniting the Beasley Coliseum crowd of 8,200, the Cougs creeping to within six.

Then, as WSU hung within four points and crunch time crept in, Watts did some of his finest work. As the Cougars tried to secure a stop on defense, the ball came loose and was careening out of bounds. Watts leapt in the air to save it and throw it behind him. Rice came to the rescue and handled it, leading to a driving layup to pull WSU within two.

The same kind of sequence led to the Watts 3-pointer that gave WSU the lead. Thanks to a switch, Rice got a mismatch up top, USC center Joshua Morgan on an island. Rice got past him with ease, drawing defenders in the paint, so he jumped in the air, faked a pass to Jakimovski and passed it out to Watts, who saw through a solid contest to knock down the catch-and-shoot 3-pointer.

“I don’t even know what happened, for real,” Watts said. “This is (nothing) cocky, confident – the way it hit my hands was just so perfect. It kind of had to go up. I couldn’t really tell you what went on, but I just knew I had to shoot it.”

Lost in Watts’ shot-making, though, is the reason he’s getting the leash to do so. He’s improved as a defender, something associate head coach Jim Shaw has been on his case about. Shaw is the team’s de facto defensive coordinator, installing the matchup zone that has keyed some of the Cougs’ best defensive outings this season, and he’s most unhappy when players aren’t on their defensive cues.

Watts has been lately, which is why he logged a career-high 28 minutes against USC. That came on the heels of WSU’s loss to ASU last Saturday, when Watts registered 16 minutes. The most obvious example came late in Thursday’s game, when – moments after hitting the go-ahead 3-pointer – Watts leaped in front of a Boogie Ellis cross-court pass, giving WSU wing Jaylen Wells the opportunity he needed to cash a 3-pointer on the other end.

Watts nabbed a similar steal in the first half, but to Shaw and the WSU coaching staff, the more encouraging part of Watts’ outing might have been his point-of-attack defense, which kept him on the floor.

Early in the second half, Watts did well to fight through a screen and stay down on Sellers, who had to give it up. The ball later came back to Sellers, who converted a difficult fadeaway jumper on Watts, but he had played solid defense all possession.

That will come in handy against UCLA’s cadre of guards, including Sebastian Mack and Steven Andrews, two underclassmen who are coming along for the Bruins.