Washington State and seven of its peers in the Pac-12 didn’t get the closure they desperately wanted when the conference decided last Thursday to cancel the remainder of its tournament in Las Vegas, following the lead of others in the college basketball world amid coronavirus worries.
The Cougars were cut short, their run in Vegas was abbreviated and their postseason aspirations were nixed before they could even learn who they’d play in a potential first-round CBI, NIT or even a long-shot NCAA tournament matchup. They’d done enough to lock down some type of postseason bid and anticipated spending their spring break in the gym, making tweaks, studying film and preparing for the opportunity to extend their season.
Instead, most of the Cougars are now at home, scattered throughout the country and the world, presumably reflecting on a season that finished at least a week too soon.
Many of those reflections should be positive for a team that finished 16-16 – the first time the Cougars finished .500 or better since 2012. We sorted through the wins, and the losses, to select 10 snapshots from WSU’s memorable 2019-20 season.
1. Bonton wows Steph and Klay
He’d later seal an 89-76 win over Oregon State on Klay Thompson Day in Pullman, finishing with 34 points, eight rebounds and eight assists, but Isaac Bonton also delivered the game’s sweetest moment with a 3-point buzzer-beater just a few steps past half court, giving the Cougars a six-point halftime lead.
Bonton caught the inbound pass from CJ Elleby, maneuvered past a defender and heaved up a 40-footer that ricocheted off the glass and dropped into the hoop. The shot sent the sellout crowd of 10,308 into a frenzy and the special guests – Thompson and fellow Golden State Warriors star Stephen Curry – jumped out of their seats and onto the court as the Cougars paraded to the locker room.
2. ‘This is my city’
Noah Williams and the Cougars were on a mission to reclaim Seattle and secure a regular-season sweep of Washington that would guarantee the Huskies a last-place Pac-12 finish when they visited their cross-state rivals on Feb. 28.
The Cougars jolted raced out to a 41-28 halftime lead, withstood a second-half barrage that gave the Huskies a brief lead and made 14 consecutive free throws, eventually pulling out a 78-74 win. Before he made two crucial free throws inside the final 10 seconds, Williams assured the crowd “I don’t get nervous in my city” before reminding them, “This is my city! This is my city!”
3. Miller time against Buffs
A late-season surge by junior forward Tony Miller was punctuated by a highlight-reel dunk in the Pac-12 Tournament against Colorado. With the Cougars in command, 70-50, Pollard caught the ball underneath the basket, then shoveled a bounce pass to Miller, who cocked his right arm back and dunked over 6-foot-8, 262-pound Colorado forward Evan Battey. The bench sprung to its feet, a small contingent of WSU fans roared and the Cougars established a 22-point lead, eventually putting away the Buffaloes, 82-68, for their first conference tournament win since 2009.
4. Raveling to the rafters
The Cougars retired Thompson’s number against Oregon State and held a tribute for one of the program’s – and sport’s – luminaries less than a month later in conjunction with the rivalry game against Washington. George Raveling, who became the first African American to coach in the Pac-8 when he arrived in Pullman in 1972, sat behind the baseline and repeatedly came out of his chair, rallying the crowd of 4,866.
Raveling addressed the crowd at halftime before the school lifted a crimson banner with his name into the rafters and the Cougars provided the finishing touch, outlasting the Huskies 79-67.
5. Elleby drowns Ducks
Wedged into Elleby’s 25-point performance against the eight-ranked team in the country was a critical three-point play from WSU’s top scorer. The Payton Pritchard-led Ducks had closed the gap to two points with 3:24 left, but after a scoreless stretch for both teams that lasted nearly two minutes, Elleby collected his own miss in traffic and converted a putback while drawing a foul.
It restored a five-point WSU lead and sparked a 10-0 run for the Cougars, who won 72-61, beating a top-10 team for just the third time in school history.
6. Bonton’s Bruin barrage
An unorthodox lineup allowed the Cougars to recover from an 11-point deficit vs. UCLA. Elleby drained the game-tying 3-pointer to force overtime. Bonton finally buried the Bruins, one shot at a time during the extra period.
Pollard and Elleby each made shots, giving WSU a four-point cushion, before handing things over to Bonton, who made a variety of shots from difficult angles before finishing off the Bruins at the free-throw line. Of the 17 points Bonton scored during a 79-71 win, eight came during an important three-minute, 42-second stretch in overtime.
7. Hospital to hero
It wasn’t so much what happened after Jeff Pollard checked back into the Pac-12 opener against USC, but all the senior forward had been through before re-entering with 2:24 to play. In the first half, a collision sent Pollard to the bench, then to the locker room with a towel over his face and eventually to a nearby hospital, where he was treated for a potential facial fracture.
When X-rays came back negative, Pollard was whisked back to Beasley Coliseum – the Cougars were still in striking distance of the Trojans at that point. In the final few minutes of a 65-56 loss, Pollard, still with a swollen face, converted a layup and gave the Cougars some tough minutes before subbing out with 30 seconds left.
8. Elleby scorches Sun Devils
In a game that evoked memories of Taylor Rochestie’s 3-point dagger against Arizona State 11 years earlier, Elleby stuck a pitchfork into the Sun Devils with a similar shot at the end of a Jan. 29 game in Pullman. In a game that featured seven lead changes, ASU went up 65-64 on a Jalen Graham free throw, but the forward missed the back end, giving WSU the chance for a game-winner with 17 seconds left.
Bonton dribbled past half-court, scanned the floor and swung a pass to Elleby at the top of the perimeter. Elleby motioned as if he was driving to the hoop, dribbled between his legs, stepped back and launched a 3-pointer, putting the Cougars in front 67-65, before Jaelen House threw the ball away on ASU’s final possession.
9. No. 2 to 1,000
There may not have been cake and candles for Elleby, but a win over UW and a major personal milestone seemed to suffice for the sophomore forward on his 19th birthday. Needing just seven points to reach 1,000 in his career, Elleby rose up from the Space Needle carved into the court at Alaska Airlines Arena and connected on an NBA-range 3-pointer that made him the third-youngest Cougar to reach the milestone.
“I’m so glad we got the win, but that means so much, individually,” Elleby said. “But nothing I couldn’t do without the team.”
10. A kiss goodbye
Pollard’s emotional goodbye to Beasley Coliseum came in the Feb. 23 home finale against Stanford. Beforehand, the fourth-year senior forward was presented with a framed jersey, lifting it over his head as he thanked the student section. Pollard and Jervae Robinson had one more heartfelt gesture in store, meandering over to the Cougar head in the center of the court, lowering their bodies to the floor and pressing their lips against the beloved logo – a heartfelt kiss goodbye before the senior duo made their way to the bench.