About Last Night: Isaiah Watts saves the day for WSU vs. USC

The freshman scored 18 points, and they were all necessary.

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Isaiah Watts celebrates after scoring a career-high 18 points for WSU against USC on February 29, 2024.

Isaiah Watts celebrates after scoring a career-high 18 points for WSU against USC on February 29, 2024. (Photo by Ashley Davis/CougCenter.com)

No. 19 WSU 75, USC 72: Quick Recap

The Cougars rebounded from their first loss in forever to secure a nail-biting victory over the Trojans, one in which in looked at various points as if WSU was probably headed for defeat — with four minutes to play, the Cougs were down by four and their win probability at kenpom.com stood at just 33%.

Hardly insurmountable, but a one-in-three chance in the final five minutes isn’t exactly what we envisioned coming into this game against USC, ranked 101 by kenpom.

But WSU did what WSU has done so much over these last couple of months. Myles Rice (who had another really tough game) sliced into the lane for a contested finish that pulled the Cougs to within 2, then Isaiah Watts (who made up for Rice by having the game of his life) buried his fifth(!!) 3-pointer to give WSU its first lead of the game, with 2:35 to play.

The Cougs got caught in a bad switch, defensively, on the next possession and gave up a dunk, but Jaylen Wells came back to the other end and hit a nifty little floater to regain the lead. A defensive stop led to a Wells 3 — WSU’s 10th make from beyond the arc — and suddenly the Cougs were 92% favorites to win with 1:18 to play.

It wouldn’t be that easy, though. Isaac Jones sent Isaiah Collier — who was a problem all night — to the line after a drive early in the shot clock, where he converted both free throws to pull back within 2. Andy Enfield put in his best defensive lineup, and it worked, as the Cougs were harried into a contested 3 by Andrej Jakimovski. Wells, however, picked up the offensive rebound, was fouled immediately, and subsequently converted both free throws.

It STILL wasn’t easy from there. Jakimovski committed a silly foul on Collier to put him back at the line without making USC burn any clock. He only made one, which should have sealed the deal with Wells going back to the line for two shots with a 3-point lead. Wells has been the Cougs’ best free throw shooter, both overall (83% coming into the game) and in the clutch (three straight in the final minute against Arizona).

Somehow, he missed both.

The Trojans hurried down the floor with 20 seconds left, needing a 3 to tie and without the benefit of a timeout to set up a play — and with Collier sitting on the bench after having been subbed out for defensive purposes earlier.

First, Boogie Ellis — a 41% shooter from beyond the arc — missed the kind of 3 he has repeatedly buried us with over the past few years. An offensive rebound gave the Trojans another chance. This time, the ball ended up in the hands of Kobe Johnson — a 29% shooter from there — and his shot missed badly. The ball was tipped around, the clock expired, and the Cougs had secured their 22nd win overall and 13th in Pac-12 play, keeping pace with Arizona after the Wildcats’ win on Wednesday.

In A Minute

  • Stats

  • Line o’ the night: Isaiah Watts with 18 points (5-of-6 from 3), 2 rebounds, 1 assist, 2 steals and 0 turnovers. (That last number was almost as huge as the 3s …)

  • One stat to tell the tale: 1 — the number of turnovers by WSU in the final 11 minutes after having committed a whopping 13 turnovers in the first 29. The game turned when WSU stopped giving the ball away.

Highlights

omg the thumbnail here … THE THUMBNAIL I AM DYING

Tourney Check

If you were still worried that there was even the smallest chance that WSU might not make the tournament, last night’s win has more or less secured it. That said, the hit to our power ranking metrics over the last two games has caused Bart’s system to project us a little less favorably than before:

Losing out and losing in the first round of the Pac-12 tournament drops us to “last four byes” per torvik’s system, in case you’re curious.1

Three Thoughts

1. Under The Weather?

Kyle Smith revealed after the game that Kymany Houinsou, who played 10 awful minutes, was throwing up in the locker room after the game. When Myles was struggling against Arizona, Smith turned to Houinsou. When Myles struggled last night, Smith did not. Now we know why! Isaac Jones also had his least impactful game in two months. What do Houinsou and Jones have in common? They missed shootaround last Saturday before ASU because of illness symptoms.

I am not a doctor, I don’t play one on TV, and I didn’t stay at a Holiday Inn Express last night, but I will say this: The illness that seems to have affected the two of them for five days perhaps explains a lot of what we saw last night — and maybe even ASU. I know I wasn’t the only one who thought the whole team looked a little flat and lethargic, and I feel pretty confident in saying that if two guys on the team are sick, there are almost certainly other guys working their way through this bug too — that’s just the reality of a small group that travels, eats, works, and lives together.

That the team was able to battle through that and still pull out a win is simply marvelous — especially if you remember that sickness was at the root of some crippling non-conference losses a couple of years ago. 

2. 3-pointers Cure A Lot Of Ills

For the third game in a row, the Cougars were not great at their bread-and-butter — interior scoring. Or defending, for that matter; USC outscored WSU 46-20 in the paint on 60% shooting from 2, while the Cougs could muster only 50% inside the arc.

Which brings us to the superior shooting metric, effective field goal percentage.

When you weight for the fact that the Cougs hit 10-of-20 3s — because, as the announcer reminded everyone, 3 is more than 2 — WSU actually outshot USC, 60% eFG to 54% eFG. That, combined with ceasing to turn the ball over for the final 11 minutes, was the winning recipe for WSU.

That, of course, stands in stark contrast to last Saturday, when WSU shot abysmally from beyond the arc against the Sun Devils. But more often than not, this team has been very good from 3. They don’t usually take a ton of them, but they usually shoot a good percentage. In the face of USC’s swarming interior defense, they had to shoot a few more than usual last night — and it made the difference.

This is where we bask in the glow of our freshman guard. No, not that one. This time, it’s Isaiah Damn Watts. He might be skinny and a bit of a defensive liability and not yet ready for regular entry into the rotation, but I’ll tell you this: That kid is fearless. And it’s that kind of kid that Kyle Smith has had so much success with. In a game where Rice was ineffective and Kymany was basically unavailable, he turned to Watts, without whom WSU does not win this game.

3. Beasley Was Rocking

I hope this video brings as much joy to your heart as it did to mine. The Wells 3 that put us up 4:

Man, how I’ve missed that.

Up Next

In the inevitable march of “lasts” this year, we get another likely one on Saturday when UCLA very likely makes its last trip to Pullman.

The Bruins have dominated this series over the years, with WSU winning just 19 of the 132 matchups. Not only that — this is the one matchup Pac-12 matchup that has proved to be a tough nut for Kyle Smith to crack: After initially winning two of Smith’s first four, WSU has now lost four straight to the Bruins by an average margin of 14 points. Only one — last year’s game in Pullman (shudders) — was decided by single digits.

Now, there’s a good reason for that: The Bruins have been very good the last two years. But WSU has beaten plenty of other “very good” teams over the last two years. It sure would be nice to send the Bruins off to the Big Ten with an old fashioned whipping.

The Bruins were once surging in the conference, but now they’ve lost three straight — at home to Utah and USC and then away to Washington last night (by 17). Their defense has ranged from awesome to very good (including against the Utes and Trojans), but the Huskies lit them up to the tune of an absurd 1.43 points per possession after hitting 15-of-24 from 3. The Bruins entice a lot of 3s — they allow the highest rate of 3s on defense in the entire conference.

Will WSU be able to get back to owning the paint such that it can still be selective with high-percentage 3s? I think that will be key.

Tip off is at 4 p.m. PT on Pac-12 Networks from Pullman. It’s going to be darn close to a full house.

Footnotes

1 I was not curious, but I know some of you always want to make sure you’re prepared for pain!

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