PULLMAN — With only one real home game in its first six Pac-12 Conference contests, the Washington State men’s basketball team was in a must-win situation Sunday against Utah.
It came down to the final shot, but the Cougars beat the Utes, 49-46, for their first conference victory.
“When you only have one game in Beasley (Coliseum), your home court, out of your first six, you better win it because it doesn’t get any easier,” coach Ken Bone said.
Utah (12-4, 1-3 Pac-12) had a chance to tie the score at the end of regulation. Up three with 4 seconds left on the clock, the Cougars fouled Utah’s Delon Wright to prevent the Utes from attempting a 3-pointer.
“Whoever got the ball past halfcourt, just foul,” forward D.J. Shelton said. WSU doesn’t always foul in that situation, but will “more often than not” if there are 6 or fewer seconds left on the clock.
After Wright missed the first free throw, he intentionally missed the second, and the Utes secured the offensive rebound. Brandon Taylor took an open 3-pointer, but it fell short, giving the Cougars (8-8, 1-3) the win.
The Cougars lost to No. 15 Colorado, 71-70, in overtime Wednesday in Spokane. While they might not have won that game, it was a reassuring performance after a pair of blowouts to the Arizona schools in the first week of conference play.
“That was kind of our wake-up call that when we execute and play hard, we can beat anybody,” forward Junior Longrus said.
In the Colorado game, WSU competed thanks to some hot outside shooting and a 24-point performance from Dexter Kernich-Drew.
That offense was nowhere to be found Sunday, as WSU was 2-for-7 on 3-pointers and shot 37.5 percent from the field. The Cougars didn’t shoot well from the free-throw line, either, but what they lacked in efficiency they made up for in volume, going 17-for-28.
WSU’s 49 points were the fewest in a win since a 43-38 victory over USC on March 3, 2012. Kernich-Drew was 5-for-6 shooting for 11 points, while freshman Que Johnson led the team with 14, despite making just two field goals.
Johnson was 10-for-13 at the free-throw line; his teammates were 7-for-15. With leading scorer DaVonté Lacy (Curtis High School) out indefinitely because of a rib injury, Johnson is being counted on to provide points for WSU’s struggling offense.
Before Sunday’s game, the most free throws Johnson had attempted for WSU was four in the second game of the season.
“I think he’ll continue to get a little more aggressive, game-in and game-out,” Bone said. “Because we’re talking to him about that every day. It’s just not his personality. There was a guy here a couple years ago named Klay Thompson. He shot 31 free throws his freshman year.”
While no one will yet mistake Johnson for Thompson, now in his third season with the Golden State Warriors, his contributions were enough as the Cougars held Utah to 13 made field goals and 29.5 percent shooting. WSU shifted to a more aggressive defense before this season, and it has paid dividends lately.
“We just (had) to adjust and keep it tight so they don’t get driving lanes,” Shelton said. “I mean they shot pretty bad from (3-point range — 2-for-14) so we should have forced them to take more of those shots.”