PULLMAN – Washington State’s bleak beginning to Pac-12 play ended in the cheeriest ways possible on Saturday: a 72-67 win over rival Washington and the return of DaVonte Lacy to the Cougars’ lineup.
Through the first half of conference play the Cougars (9-12, 2-7 Pac-12) are looking up at almost every Pac-12 team. But for the first time since losing Lacy nearly a month ago, WSU looked like a team ready to pick and finish a fight.
“It’s really important, especially with the season we’ve been having,” said D.J. Shelton, who led the Cougars with 20 points and 18 rebounds. “I think it’s a great place to just start new in the new Pac-12, second half, and just come out and turn our season around.”
Without Lacy, the team had averaged just more than 49 points per game in seven Pac-12 contests. But with the junior guard back in the starting lineup, the Cougars nearly matched that with 47 points in the second half.
When the teams returned from halftime it appeared that the game would follow a familiar refrain. In previous games against Arizona State, Cal and Stanford the Cougars defense kept the score low and the margin close for a half, before wilting because of a lack of depth in the second half.
But it was the bench that made the difference against WSU’s rivals, outscoring the Huskies reserves 18-4.
Less than a minute into the second half, the Cougars tied the game when Lacy fed Jordan Railey for a dunk. Perris Blackwell responded with a layup and freshman point guard Nigel Williams-Goss fed UW sharpshooter C.J. Wilcox for a 3-pointer and then again for a layup, giving the Huskies a 34-27 edge.
UW (13-9, 5-4 Pac-12) maintained a moderate lead until Lacy – who had missed seven shot attempts – scored his first points on a pair of free throws to cut UW’s lead to 42-41. They proved to be just what Lacy, and the Cougars, needed as the Cougars raced out to a 56-47 lead spurred on by a raucous crowd of 5,796, WSU’s largest of the season.
Lacy hit a pair of 3-pointers in front of the student section and finished with 10 points.
“It’s nice to have him out there,” coach Ken Bone said. “Obviously it’s not just the numbers he puts up, it’s his presence. We know we have a good player who’s confident, who’s a leader and it showed up many, many times during the course of the game in timeouts, huddles on the court, halftime in the locker room.”
The Cougars held off the Huskies, who began to full-court press and tactically foul with three minutes left in the game. The strategy proved sound as the Cougars made just 21 of 34 free-throw attempts. It was insufficient, however to overcome the 10-point lead WSU took on Lacy’s second 3-pointer.
Losing to cross-state rival Washington State never feels good, but this one hurt the Huskies more than they expected.
Standing outside the visiting locker room in a crowded tunnel below Beasley Coliseum, C.J. Wilcox tried to make sense of the defeat on Saturday.
“It’s just so frustrating,” he said.
Admittedly, he didn’t have answers to adequately explain this one.
He wondered how the Huskies surrendered 72 points to a team that had averaged 49 during the Pac-12 season.