PULLMAN – The score was tied five times, the lead changed seven times, and in the end Washington State notched its first Pac-12 win of the season. Overcoming a poor shooting night and a 12-point deficit, the Cougs hung their hat on defense and free throws to post a dramatic 49-46 decision over Utah on Sunday. Afterward, Cougar head man Ken Bone was succinct in his verdict on the outcome.
Noting that this was the Cougars’ lone Pullman stop in its first six conference games, Bone didn’t call the victory imperative but conceded “you better win it.”
The Cougars, who shot 37.5 percent from the field for the game, fell behind by 12 points in the first half, but Bone said once it became clear how the officials were going to call the contest, his instructions to the team were succinct: attack the rim.
Indeed, the Cougars were fouled 22 times and went 17 for 28 at the free-throw line (61 percent). The Utes were on the same page, drawing 21 fouls and hitting 18 of 27 free throws (68 percent). It was a stark contrast from the Cougs’ overtime loss to Colorado the other night, when the Buffs took 38 trips to the stripe compared with 3 for the Cougars.
Second-year freshman Que Johnson was the Cougars’ No. 1 attack artist. He led the Cougars in scoring, with 14, and 10 of those points came from 13 attempts from the charity stripe.
With the team’s leading scorer, DaVonte Lacy, still sidelined with a rib injury, Johnson’s offensive output was key.
“I thought Que did a good job,” Bone said. “Every night your shot (is) not going to fall but a good player, a good scorer will manufacture points in a variety of ways and I thought that’s what he did really well tonight.”
Johnson was just 2 of 7 from the field.
“I think he’ll continue to get a little more aggressive game in and game out. We’re talking to him about that every day, it’s just not his personality.”
Pressed about Johnson’s aggressiveness, Bone likened him to a young Klay Thompson, who was tentative about going to the rim early in his WSU career but eventually turned into a cutthroat scorer around the basket. Bone hopes Johnson evolves in similar fashion.
IN A TRUE ABBERATION FOR THE COUGARS, they put up just seven three-point attempts against Utah, hitting two courtesy of Ike Iroegbu and Dexter Kernich-Drew. Mind you now, the Cougs hoisted 23 against Colorado the other night and are averaging more than 20 per game this season.
“Utah’s defense was really good on the three,” Bone said. “Dex and Que, or anybody else who tried to come off for a three…they did a great job of guarding us tight. We did not a lot of great looks or our guys would’ve put it up I’m sure.”
Defensively, the Cougars held a Pac-12 opponent to a season-low in scoring for the second time. The Utes’ previous low was 57 points in their loss to Washington. WSU also held No. 1 ranked Arizona to a season-low 60 pints at the start of conference play. This also serves as the second time this season the Cougars held their opponents to under 30 percent shooting from the field.
With Lacy out of the lineup, some tweaking was required on defense, but overall Bone said his players have developed an understanding of his new defensive philosophy. Asked about any concerns getting Lacy back into the swing of things, at both ends of the court, upon his return, Bone said, “I don’t know but I sure he comes back quick we’ll deal with it then, I’ll look forward to that issue. “
Lacy is scheduled to meet with doctors Monday. There is still no timetable for his return.
NEXT UP: The Cougars travel to the Bay Area this week for matchups with Stanford (7 p.m. Wednesday) and California (1 p.m. Saturday). Both will be broadcasted on the Pac-12 Networks.
WSU had advantages in both rebounding (34-32) and points in the paint (18-16). The Utes held a 12-6 advantage in points off turnovers.
For the second straight game, Kernich-Drew scored in double figures, with 11 points on 5-of-6 from shooting from the field. “I wouldn’t say I am a legit scorer, but I guess when I’m open I’m taking my shots and making sure they’re good shots, and just trying to stick with the team plan,” he said.
The win improves the Cougars to 8-8, (1-3 Pac-12) and drops Utah to 12-4, (1-3).
Attendance was announced at 2,375.
D.J. Shelton flirted with another double-double , finishing with 8 points and 9 rebounds. He tied his career-highs with six free throws made and eight attempted.
A Utah rebound on a missed Utes free throw in the final seconds led to a corner three-point attempt at the buzzer by Utes guard Brandon Taylor that would have tied the game. His air-ball was caught by Shelton and the Cougs’ first win of the Pac-12 season was sealed.