About Last Night: Cougs beat Arizona, seize 1st place

Jaylen Wells' four-point play seals the deal.

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No. 21 WSU 77, No. 4 Arizona 74: Quick Recap

Two hours after second place Washington State tipped off as a 13.5-point underdog to league leader Arizona, the Cougars walked out of McKale Center with a three-point victory and sole possession of first place in the Pac-12.

It was a back-and-forth affair befitting a heavyweight battle for supremacy in the final iteration of the west coast’s premier basketball conference, filled with everything you want in a great college basketball game: Lead changes, twists, turns, big shots, big errors … everything we love about this sport.

The Cougs held leads of 6, 6, 7, and 6 at various points in the game, while Arizona never led by more than four. Neither team would allow the other to seize control, and it was WSU that made the big plays down the stretch.

With 51 seconds to go and the game tied at 71, Arizona’s Caleb Love finished a layup while drawing a (questionable) foul on Rueben Chinyelu. His free throw was pure, and the Wildcats led by three. On the ensuing possession and needing a 3, Myles Rice — who played sparingly down the stretch — found a little space to squeeze off a shot. But unlike so many other times this season, it didn’t go in.

There was a scramble for the ball, as hands poked and prodded. Eventually Andrej Jakimovski emerged with the offensive rebound, finding Jaylen Wells in the corner for a 3-point look.

Money. And the foul!

The Cougs stood tall defensively on the next possession, first when Isaac Jones blocked Love’s driving shot out of bounds, then finally when Love drove into the trees and tried to jump stop, only to slip and turn the ball over with a travel. Two free throws by Wells later, Love was heaving up a desperation, turnaround 3 from near midcourt that was oddly close to going in, but didn’t, and the Wheatfield Underdogs emerged at the top of the Pac-12 standings.

In A Minute

  • Stats

  • Line o’ the night: Jaylen Wells with 27 points, 3 rebounds, 2 assists, 1 steal in 39 minutes.

  • Unsung hero: Rueben Chinyelu with 12 points, 11 rebounds, 1 assists, 1 block in 28 minutes.

  • One stat to tell the tale: 1. As in, 1st place, all alone. As in, 1 team at the top of the standings. As in, “on track for the 1 seed in the Pac-12 tournament”:


Tourney Check

Folks, we are getting in range of playing our first game(s) in Spokane:

Four Thoughts

(Because sometimes, Three Thoughts just isn’t enough!)

1. What it means

I have so many emotions bubbling in my head this morning. I’m going to guess you do too.

Being in first place this late in the season feels electric in and of itself, but it’s also impossible to ignore the context: this being the final Pac-12 season, Arizona being one of the two Basketball Giants in this conference for so many years and one of the defectors that left WSU behind.

To beat the Wildcats with that backdrop, and on their home floor — FOR THE SECOND YEAR IN A ROW1 … it’s just so hard to describe how satisfying this is, emotionally.

On a practical level, here’s what it does: The Cougars now control their own path to the conference regular season championship (and No. 1 seed in the Pac-12 Tournament) with four games to play. They will be significant favorites in each one, with kenpom.com putting their odds at no less than 70% in any of the remaining games. Win them all, and the job is done — No. 1 seed, no worse than a share of the conference title. Lose one, and you’d need Arizona to lose one of their final five games.

Personally, I want to win out and have Arizona lose one so that we win the conference outright - no tiebreakers needed.

As for the NCAA tournament, I mentioned above that this means we’re moving toward playing Spokane. Seeds on the first four lines are more or less guaranteed to be placed at the regional site nearest their campus, and for WSU, that’s obviously Spokane — where Idaho is technically the host.2

I honestly am not sure what WSU would have to do to get up to a No. 4 seed. “Keep winning” is the obvious answer, but I’m not sure if it’s going to require winning out, or if there’s wiggle room. I suspect we’ll have a little better sense once folks update their brackets and we see how far up the Cougs move in the Bracket Matrix after this win.

But the fact that it’s even on the table is mind blowing.

2. Jaylen Wells is That Dude

I’ve got a post in the works to try and contextualize what Wells is doing this year as a Division II uptransfer, but for now, I just want to talk about what he did last night.

On an evening when Myles Rice was far from his best and Isaac Jones took an entire half to adjust to the atmosphere on the road, Wells was completely unfazed, carrying the Cougs through a rough offensive first half. And it’s not the first time he’s done that — we can point to multiple games on this win streak where Wells has shouldered the load for significant portions of games (especially at the beginning) to help WSU get to the point where the rest of the team could come along with him.

Last night, of course, was the capstone performance on all of it. He scored 13 of WSU’s 34 points in the first half to power the Cougars to a 1-point halftime lead as the rest of the team struggled to break free of Arizona’s energetic defense; then, he scored 8 of WSU’s final 10 points of the game — including three free throws in the last 30 seconds with the game on the line.

The last free throw was maybe the most interesting to me, and says the most about who Wells is. Having just made the first one to put the Cougs up by 2 with 2.7 seconds remaining, Wells was preparing for the second one when Kyle Smith used his last timeout, presumably to set the defense. Normally, such a move would evoke derision for icing your own player, but Smith knew what we all could plainly see: It wouldn’t matter one bit to Wells. And it didn’t.

That four-point play is going to go down in WSU basketball lore. And these quotes are gold:

3. Kyle Smith’s Masterclass

First, I’m just going to leave this here. We’ve now won 3 of 4 against Arizona.

We had won just 1 of the prior 19.

After writing a such a long ode to Smith earlier in the week, it was so fun to watch him do his thing in this game, managing it perfectly. In a tight game such as this, the best thing a coach can do is generate some sort of marginal advantage that might end up making some kind of difference in the end.

There were two things I noticed.

The first was making what had to be a gut-wrenching decision to bench Rice down the stretch. There’s no sugar coating the fact that Myles had a terrible game: When he committed a (questionable) offensive foul with 4:14 to play, it was his fourth turnover against just 5 points (on 2-of-11 shooting) and 3 assists.

Most coaches would stick with the guy that played a massive role in getting WSU to this point in the season. But Smith subbed in Kymany Houinsou to create a ridiculously long lineup that lacked a clear ball-handler. It was risky, and it definitely touch and go from there — my knuckles were white around my beer, especially when Houinsou made a bad turnover almost immediately after entering — but the strategy worked.

The second was calling that timeout before Wells’ second FT. Obviously there’s a risk when you make your own free throw shooter sit around for a minute. But that risk was outweighed by the need to make sure the defense was organized, whether it was going to be defending up 3 (if he makes) or up 2 (if he misses). Do we foul if he makes? Do we pressure?

As it turned out, the Cougs decided to sort of zone it up a little after the make and prevent a long pass, all the while doubling Love. Yes, Love ended up with the ball in his hands, and yes, the shot ended up much closer to going in than you’d expect, but I think that says more about Love than anything else — the Cougs damn near forced a steal and the shot was impossibly difficult.

Kyle Smith did it again.

4. Shot Volume Victory

We harp a lot on shot volume on the podcast — more offensive rebounds and fewer turnovers means more bites at the apple when you’re trying to score. The Cougs did an incredible job on that front last night with two things we made a very big deal about on the podcast.

First off, WSU had to minimize turnovers after a four-game stretch in which the Cougs were turning it over at a very bad rate. Last night, WSU turned it over just 9 times 71 possessions — only 13% of their possessions. That’s excellent, and a huge reason why Arizona had just 7 fast break points. It looks even better when you consider that non-Rice players turned it over just 5 times.

Second, WSU had to do a great job on the defensive glass. They did just that: Arizona collected just 11 offensive rebounds, representing just 29% of their misses. In the first game, Arizona grabbed 42%. A huge, massive shoutout goes to Chinyelu for that one. The freshman big man from Nigeria effectively neutralized Oumar Ballo on the glass, playing a season high in minutes and collecting his first double-double. Massive, massive contribution.

Up Next

The Cougs head up the road to Tempe for their last road game of the season, against the dreadful ASU Sun Devils. Bobby Hurley’s squad is quite bad; ASU last beat a team of roughly the quality of WSU way back on January 6, when the Sun Devils posted a 3-point win over Colorado at home. That capped a 4-0 start to Pac-12 play. Since then, the Sun Devils are 3-9.

That said, ASU did get to OT against Washington last night before eventually losing by two. In the game before that, however, ASU lost by 45 at the arena where the Cougs just won. I know transitive property isn’t really a thing in sports, but for real: ASU is not good, the Cougs should win pretty handily … and of course that’s what will terrify all of us.

Tip off is on Saturday at 5 p.m. PT on ESPN2.


1 Broadcasts love love love to make a very big deal about Arizona’s record at home under Tommy Lloyd.

  • Lloyd’s record at home against everyone else: 45-1.

  • Lloyd’s record at home against WSU: 0-2.

2 They also could end up there as not a No. 4 seed. Lots of stuff goes into that. It’s just that being a top 16 team makes it almost assured.1st

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