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WSU Men's Basketball

In WSU’s win over UCLA, Andrej Jakimovski showed toughness and Cougs rolled out new lineup

PULLMAN – Andrej Jakimovski wasn’t exactly himself in his Washington State group’s win over UCLA on Saturday. That much was clear just by looking at him, at the wrap on his shoulder, at the cut on his bottom lip.

“He’s tougher than nails,” WSU coach Kyle Smith said.

Playing with a shoulder injury he sustained two days prior and nursing a lip gash he suffered early in Saturday’s game, Jakimovski proved it – and then some. He scored 10 points and grabbed nine rebounds, all while playing 34 minutes, which is right around his average.

Even the two 3-pointers he hit were timely. Midway through the second half of the No. 19 Cougars’ 77-65 win, he pulled up on the right wing and sank it, giving the hosts a one-point lead. Moments later, he capped an 8-0 run with another wing triple, this one to secure a five-point advantage, sending Beasley Coliseum’s 8,000 fans to delirium.

For the game, Jakimovski made 3 of 7 shots, including 2 of 6 from deep. It’s his third time in four games taking 8 shots or fewer. His 3-pointer has come and gone – he went 0 for 8 last week in two games in Arizona, responding with a 6-for-16 stretch this weekend – but to let Smith tell it, his shoulder injury isn’t why.

Jakimovski first hurt his shoulder, on his shooting arm, during WSU’s win over USC on Thursday. He came out in the first half for a few moments, and in the second half, he took the court wearing the same wrap he sported in Saturday’s contest, a multilayered arrangement of tape. His minutes never suffered, playing 36 against USC and 34 against UCLA.

“They said, it hurts when he shoots,” Smith said, referring to a team athletic trainer. “I said, that’s fine. Does it affect the stroke? They said, no. I said, all right. He won’t feel it. He might feel it afterward. Just hit some big shots.”

The good news for WSU (23-7, 14-5) is that Jakimovski can continue playing through the injury, Smith said. The Cougars get three days off before they close out the regular season with a home matchup against rival Washington on Thursday. Then it’s off to the Pac-12 Tournament in Las Vegas, where WSU has earned an extra day of rest by securing a top-four seed, playing its first game on March 14, a Thursday.

“He needs rest. It’ll be good,” said Smith, whose group is one-half game back of first place in the Pac-12. “It’s March. He plays 35, 36 minutes a game.”

That Jakimovski still connected on two opportune triples speaks to his shotmaking ability. That he continued to impact the game even when he couldn’t speaks to the way he has reinvented himself in some ways this season.

For the first three years of his career, Jakimovski fashioned himself a stand-still shooter, a tall wing whose best attribute was his catch-and-shoot ball. He still does that in spades, but he is also driving more, attacking closeouts more, making a concerted effort to hit the glass and giving his team more opportunities as a result.

So far this season, Jakimovski is averaging 5.6 rebounds per game, by far a career high. He has six games of eight-plus rebounds. He recorded just two such games last season. He’s given himself the opportunity by improving on defense – “Andrej has been our most dependable defender throughout,” associate head coach Jim Shaw said last month – and the numbers bear that out.

“What I really try to emulate is the way he’s solid on defense,” WSU freshman guard Isaiah Watts said of Jakimovski. “He’s never gambling. He just plays the right way all the time. I feel like watching him and learning from him, and being in practice with him, he’s the best teacher. He don’t really have to say much. He really doesn’t say much a lot. But when he says something, it’s important.”

Even when he isn’t making shots – Jakimovski is hitting 34% of his 3s this season, his lowest mark since his freshman season – his presence on the floor is critical for WSU. The Cougs need his size on defense and on the glass. They also need the spacing he provides. Defenses respect his catch-and-shoot 3 regardless of whether he’s made 10 in a row or missed 10 in a row, which opens up the floor for interior players like Isaac Jones.

Speaking of Jones, he’s in the middle of a rough patch, though not entirely by his own doing. Against USC, he posted six points on three shots. Against UCLA, he went for 11 points on five shots, converting just 5 of 10 free throws. He is still recovering from being under the weather, which started last week in Arizona, where he and guard Kymany Houinsou weren’t feeling well.

That has conspired to limit Jones’ effectiveness, but so has the way opponents are guarding him. The more he plays well, the more Jones sees double teams, and recently, those have been coming almost as soon as he catches the ball on the block. He’s struggled against multiple bodies, but he’s also had a tough time because he hasn’t been able to catch the ball at his best spots on the floor.

That is happening in large part because the Cougs’ biggest lineups produce a lack of space on the floor. Check out the way USC guarded WSU center Rueben Chinyelu, taking away his pass to Jones in the paint.

Fast forward to Saturday’s game. For 41/2 minutes , WSU put Jones at the center position, resulting in this lineup: Myles Rice, Watts, Jaylen Wells, Jakimovski and Jones, a small-ball approach that spreads the floor.

When Watts came in for Houinsou, the Cougs were down one. When Watts subbed out due to fouling out, the hosts were up seven – meaning that lineup was a plus-8 for WSU.

It’s no coincidence that’s when the Cougars made the run that won them the game. In that stretch, WSU went on a 14-2 run, taking complete control on both ends of the floor, using its athleticism and shooting to out-gun the Bruins.

The lineup is made possible by Smith’s trust in Watts, who has made meaningful strides as a defender.

But Watts’ best attribute is his scoring, which opens up the floor for Jones, who scored one of his two second-half buckets with that lineup on the floor.