CJ Elleby and Noah Williams lingered for several long minutes on the Alaska Airlines Arena floor while taking photos at midcourt, snapping selfies and signing autographs for courtside fans.
Following Washington State’s 78-74 victory against the Huskies on Friday night, the Seattle natives reveled in a win they’ll likely never forget.
“We had to take a picture over there with the Space Needle on the floor,” said Williams, who starred at O’Dea High. “We had to. It was mandatory. We had to let them know who runs the city, and Pullman runs it. Washington State, we run this.”
There’s no debating that bold proclamation after the Cougars swept the regular-season series against their cross-state rivals for first time since 2017.
“Most importantly we got the win,” former Cleveland High standout Elleby said noting the victory snapped WSU’s four-game losing streak. “Then we got our first road win and the first time we beat a team two times in a row.
“And then back in my hometown in front of my family and friends. It’s just special because everybody comes and they’re supportive. That’s the most important thing is that they’re here and that’s what makes me most happy.”
Making the win that much sweeter for the Cougars (15-14, 6-10 Pac-12) is knowing they pushed the Huskies into unwanted history.
With two regular-season games remaining, Washington (13-16, 3-13) is locked into a last-place finish in the conference. The Huskies, which won the Pac-12 title last season, are the first team in the 52-year history of the league to fall from first to last in the standings.
“It was a special win today,” Williams said. “Shout out to my brothers. We fought through adversity and got the win out here in Seattle.”
Elleby, who torched the Huskies for a career-high 34 points in a WSU 79-67 victory on Feb. 9, finished with a game-high 21 points while Williams added 15.
“My focus coming in was just to do whatever I had to do to get the win,” said Elleby, who tallied nine rebounds, four steals, three assists and two blocks. “Not focus on points, but let the game come to me.”
Washington State also received a tremendous lift from the return of Isaac Bonton. The junior point guard, who missed the last three games due to a hip injury, scored 18 of his 20 points in the second half.
“It was great having him back, and he made some big plays coming down the stretch,” Elleby said. “He’s a spectacular player. He made so many plays. Just when he’s on the court, he’s always a threat when he has the ball in his hands. We missed him when we didn’t have him, and it seemed like he didn’t miss a beat when he got back on the court.”
In an emotionally charged game in front of 9,131, the Huskies erased a 13-point halftime deficit (41-28) and held a brief one-point lead before falling behind by 13 points (66-53) once again with 7:58 remaining.
That’s when coach Mike Hopkins ditched UW’s 2-3 zone for a man-to-man defense that sped up the tempo, forced turnovers and jump-started a stagnant offense.
“We just felt we needed to change something,” Hopkins said. “We sparked it. We got some easy baskets in transition. The longer we stayed in it, we made a couple of fouls and put them on the line, which were big plays.
“It was a game of runs. We got down and we just couldn’t be consistent over time to be able to not only take the lead but kind of build it. We gave it back to them too easily.”
After switching to man defense, Washington went on a 21-9 run and cut WSU lead to 75-74 with 24 seconds left.
Bonton made 1 of 2 free throws, which gave the Huskies one last chance to take the lead or tie in the final 18 seconds.
McDaniels gave the ball to junior guard Nahziah Carter who drove to the basket against Williams and missed a short contested jumper that hit the front of the rim with eight seconds left.
Williams collected the rebound and sank a pair of free throws at the other end to seal the win for WSU, which converted 23 of 27 free throws. The Huskies were 23 of 38 at the line.
“I got to the basket, and I think I might have got hit,” said Carter, who finished with 14 points, five rebounds and four steals. “They didn’t call it and I missed it and that was it.”
Jaden McDaniels led Washington with 19 points while Isaiah Stewart finished with 10 points and 11 rebounds.
For Senior Night, Hopkins rolled out an unconventional lineup that included three seniors in Sam Timmins as well as walk-ons Jason Crandall and Quin Barnard.
UW also started freshman forwards Stewart and McDaniels, who had come off the bench in the previous six games.
Despite the “one more year” chants from the UW student section, McDaniels and Stewart, who are projected to go in the first round of the NBA draft this summer, likely made their final appearance at Alaska Airlines Arena.
When asked if he considered Friday his final home game, McDaniels said: “Nah, not really. It’s just another game. I’m just going out and trying to get a W with my teammates.”
Carter interjected: “We’re just trying to focus on the rest of our season.”
Washington’s latest setback in its final home game comes after last week’s 82-57 win over California that snapped a nine-game losing streak.
“We’ve just been that team that shows so many good signs and then we just, it’s like anything you’re looking for that consistency,” Hopkins said. “You’re looking for that not mental lapse. You’re looking for that focus.
“As a coach, you’re always striving for perfection. Progress not perfection. We’re taking real baby steps and we’re not taking those significant steps that we need to win these games.”