PULLMAN — They showed the potential of a club that will have the chance to sit on an NCAA tournament bubble at some point in the not-so-distant future.
But for now, Noah Williams and the Washington State men’s basketball team will have to settle with bursting the bubbles of their opposition.
Two days after scoring a career-high 32 points in a win over California, Williams had his sights on something bigger — for himself and WSU’s program. The career high expired after just 48 hours, as the sophomore from O’Dea High School scored 40 points to lead the Cougars to an 85-76 triple-overtime victory against Stanford on Saturday at Beasley Coliseum. Williams played 54 minutes and hit the tying three-pointer at the end of regulation to force overtime against Stanford, an NCAA tournament hopeful.
The victory snapped a nine-game losing streak against the Cardinal, who’d won every matchup since 2016, and secured WSU’s first winning season since 2010-11. With road games at Arizona and Arizona State on tap, the Cougars (14-10, 7-10 Pac-12) can’t do any worse than 14-12 in the regular season and would still finish above .500 with a first-round loss in the Pac-12 tournament.
“I said that when I committed, in my commitment video, I told them I wanted to come in here and change the culture,” Williams said. “That’s what we did. I believe in coach (Kyle) Smith, (and) coach Smith believes in us as a team. Like I said earlier in the season, we’re young and we’re learning and we’re a great team. Everybody on our team wants to win. … I feel like if you have that will to win, you’re going to have a good team.
“It’s amazing to have a winning season. It’s a blessing.”
Williams had the program’s first 40-point game since Klay Thompson scored 43 points in 2011, The sophomore’s eight three-pointers were the most by a WSU player since Robert Franks in 2019. His 72 points against the Bay Area schools make Williams a virtual lock for the Pac-12’s Player of the Week honor, and he set a school record for the most points scored in a weekend series, beating Bennie Seltzer’s 68 (1993).
Right after leaving the floor, Williams was greeted by the only thing that could cool him down: a wet, sugary shower of blue Gatorade, supplied by teammates as he entered the locker room. The Cougars soaked Smith as well, emptying an icy water cooler on the second-year coach, who inherited a program that had strung together seven consecutive losing seasons when he took the WSU job in 2019.
“Every coach, at least in our coaching circle, we go with the one, 10 and this year 14 (wins) was the magic number,” Smith said. “Then it’s 20 and 25, then, God forbid if you ever get to 30, it’s time to retire. You’ve got to get your first (win), you’ve got to get to double figures, then you’ve got to get to the winning season. That was nice, and every year it’s like that.”
Playing without leading scorer Isaac Bonton for the third consecutive game, and without backup guard Ryan Rapp for the second game in a row, the Cougars had to go deep into their reserves to pull out Saturday’s win. Nobody dug deeper than Williams.
Trailing by as many as eight points in the second half, WSU closed the gap to three inside the final minute. Stanford’s Michael O’Connell missed a free throw, giving the Cougars a chance to tie it on the final possession. Williams brought the ball across the timeline, took two dribbles, stepped left to create separation from defender Bryce Wills and hoisted a three-point shot, watching it fall through the net as he hit the ground.
It capped a 21-point half for Williams, who had 24 in the first half of Thursday’s win over the Golden Bears.
“He was not wanting to lose,” Smith said of Williams. “He’s a really good competitor. He’s probably got the best belief of anyone I’ve ever coached. He has great self-esteem, great confidence. There are a few more gray hairs watching a couple of shots, but he was willful and the last one to send it to overtime, I thought he was going to wait too long and they were going to be able to foul him. I said, ‘Just pull it,’ and then he made it and I’m not sure he didn’t get fouled.”
DJ Rodman’s three-pointer and Efe Abogidi’s dunk were the only points the Cougars could muster in the first overtime. Williams guided his team through the second OT, hitting a trio of free throws after his close friend, fellow Seattle native and ex-high school rival Daejon Davis, fouled the WSU guard on a three-point attempt and fouled out of the game.
In the third overtime, Abogidi got the Cougars on the board with a layup on a Stanford turnover, and Jaz Kunc made it a four-point game on a putback layup. With 2:34 left to play in the OT period, Abogidi delivered one of the season’s most important shots, canning a three-pointer from the top of the key to extend the lead to 83-76.
Before that, Abogidi, a reliable three-point shooter during nonconference play, had missed 20 consecutive three-point attempts dating to a Jan. 23 game against Colorado.
“That was big. That was big for him and big for us, too,” Kunc said. “It came just in the right moment. He can shoot. … For guys like that, it’s just about confidence and just about letting them fly. If you miss a couple shots, you just can’t stop. Especially a guy like him. He’s open a lot because people have to double-team Noah, double-team Isaac.”
Abogidi finished with 14 points and eight rebounds, Andrej Jakimovski had 11 points, nine rebounds and six assists, and Kunc finished with 11 points to go with seven rebounds.
The Cougars held Pac-12 Player of the Year candidate Oscar da Silva to 11 points after the Stanford forward scored 27 points in the previous matchup.
Da Silva fouled out with 37 seconds left in the second OT.
Williams reached the 40-point mark with a short floater to make it 85-76 and heaved up a three-pointer with: 26 on the clock, hoping to match the 43 points scored by his father, Guy, in a 1983 WSU game against Idaho State.
“It’s a blessing. I thank God every day for my God gifts and talent,” he said. “It’s for sure a blessing, but that’s not the last you’re going to see from Noah Williams.”