Root: Falling to Arizona was best loss possible for 8-0 WSU

Playing the Wildcats tough showed the Cougars are a legitimate threat this season

Posted on January 7, 2021

Ryan Root
  By Ryan Root, SportsPac12

The WSU men’s basketball team’s undefeated streak to start out the 2020-21 season was put to an end by the Arizona Wildcats last Saturday. With this end-to-the-undefeated streak, it seems as if non-WSU fans have officially assigned the Cougars as a fluke, who only reached their success because of the “weak” non-conference schedule the team had.


 

But their first and only loss is not a reality check, it’s confirmation that this WSU men’s basketball team is just getting started.

First of all, WSU faced one of the powerhouses of the Conference in Arizona—a program that consistently produces NBA talent, routinely makes the NCAA tournament, and frequently ranks as one of the favorites to win their Power 5 conference every season.

Last season, WSU was embarrassed by Arizona in both of their matchups, both of which were double-digit losses for the Cougars. This year, the Cougars and their top-40 recruiting class in the nation went out and duked it out with Arizona through two overtime periods.


Arizona guard Bennedict Mathurin shoots over WSU’s Tony Miller and Dishon Jackson | Dean Hare/AP

The two overtimes are what really sticks out in this matchup.

Whenever a player from WSU sits in front of the camera during a post-game press conference, chances are that player will bring up how the team is good at handling adversity. Last season’s frequent term was Kyle Smith’s “three pillars.” This year it’s adversity.


 

And they’re all correct. Before the season started, their premier scoring threat, CJ Elleby, declared for the NBA draft, leaving the Cougs to figure out where to replace his scoring.

Williams

Isaac Bonton was certainly the front runner to take that place, but I think it’s safe to say that most of us weren’t expecting the second-year jump that Noah Williams has made this year. Williams stepped up offensively for WSU without giving up his consistent production on the defensive end.

Early in the season, WSU struggled going into halftime with a lead. The Cougars trailed at the half in their first four games, but turned things around in the second half of those games, remaining undefeated.

On top of that, all of the wins were within five points, showing the Cougars’ discipline in late game situations.

WSU eventually started leading at halftime in their following four games, and of course won each of them. One of these matchups was against Montana State. That game, Bonton was out with a minor injury and did not play.

The Cougs took it in stride, dropping 82 points Bobcats. Again, the team adjusted.

Speaking of injuries, the team has had its fair amount of them. Not only Bonton, but early-season producing forward DJ Rodman went out with an ankle injury in Game Five. Forward Aljaz Kunc endured an ankle injury not too long after that.

And then of course last year’s sixth-man weapon for the team, Tony Miller, was out after game one and didn’t return until the game against Arizona.

Bonton

And now we return to the Arizona game, a game in which the Cougars were a decided underdog. Before tip-off, the Cougars were without four players because of COVID-19 protocols. The slope of the mountain that WSU had to climb to reach victory had already been steepened, and the opening whistle hadn’t been blown yet.

So with three true freshman and two second-year players in the starting lineup, the game started, and WSU fought hard. The Cougs were down at half, the first in four games, but of course they weren’t going down that easily.


Bonton, who had already been having a shaky year as it was, turned up the jets in the second half and brought his team back into contention. Meanwhile, WSU only played two centers in their rotation because they only had two big men dressed to play. One of them, Dishon Jackson, fouled out early in the second half, leaving Efe Abogidi to fend for himself down low, while incurring some foul trouble himself.

Regardless of the constant hurdles thrown in the way of the Cougars, they kept fighting. And after their valiant effort this earned them a tied game at the end of regulation, sending the Cougars into their first overtime of the season.


Washington State’s Efe Abogidi blocks a shot by Arizona’s Jemarl Baker Jr. | Dean Hare/AP

Abogidi fouled out within a minute into the first overtime and, just like that, WSU was without any centers for the rest of the game. Both teams went back and forth and reached a stalemate once again. Double-overtime it was then.

And then, once double overtime was coming to an end, the Cougars’ glaring weakness came back to haunt them. Free throw shooting. WSU shot a season high 37 free throws, and made just 19 of them, a little over half.

As the Cougars lost by just four points, a pair of perfect trips to the free throw line could’ve kept WSU in the game.

But now the Cougars have an obnoxious “one” next to their eight wins in the record book, and Pac-12 fans seem almost relieved that the Cougars finally lost. Almost as if they have finally met some real competition.

I say it’s quite the opposite.

Arizona came into the game with a stampede of momentum, even after enduring a close loss to Stanford. Most thought their momentum wouldn’t even break stride going through WSU, but those fans and Wildcats were wrong.

The game was wildly entertaining, despite the clear difference in the number of obstacles before each team. WSU may have lost its first game of the season, but wasn’t first gut punch this team has withstood this season.

The Cougars will return to the win column soon, and they’ll drop even more jaws from doubters while doing so.







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