Washington State won the basketball game and survived the war.
With 52 combined fouls and three second-half injuries that left both teams short-handed down the stretch, Thursday’s game between WSU and Oregon was never easy on the eyes, but it made a victory that much more meaningful for the visiting team.
Led by point guard Isaac Bonton, a Portland native who’s never been silent abut the fact he didn’t collect a scholarship offer from either of the Pac-12 schools in his home state, WSU ended a nine-game losing streak in Eugene and picked up the program’s first win at Matthew Knight Arena, outlasting the heavily-favored Ducks 74-71.
Bonton, who last year alluded to having a chip on his shoulder in games against the teams from Eugene and Corvallis, led the game with 23 points on 7 of 13 shooting and improved his personal record against the Oregon schools to 4-0.
Unaware the Cougars had never won at MTA, Bonton said it meant “everything” to snatch a victory in his Oregon homecoming. Because WSU skipped a trip to Oregon last year, the former Montana State and Casper College guard had played in 88 college basketball games but not a single one in his home state before Thursday.
Bonton didn’t understate the importance of that — not through his play, which lifted the Cougars down the stretch, and not through the comments he made during a postgame interview.
“I don’t like to lose at home, I don’t like to lose against any Oregon schools. I have a big chip on my shoulder about that,” Bonton told reporters on Zoom. “My teammates knew that, so having them coming in just ready to go to work in the trenches with me, it’s just great man and coaches did a great job too.”
WSU (11-7, 4-7), which will have played 10 of its last 12 games on the road by the time the Cougars leave Oregon, visits Oregon State (9-7, 5-5) for a 3 p.m. tipoff Saturday at Gill Coliseum in Corvallis. The game will be televised by the Pac-12 Networks.
Winning Thursday required concentration and patience against an Oregon team that had played just one game since Jan. 9 due to COVID-19 hurdles. Three players fouled out of the game, 53 total free throws were attempted and the 52 combined fouls were one shy of an arena record.
The fouls prevented the game from developing any type of fluidity, as did injuries to WSU’s DJ Rodman and Jaz Kunz, along with Oregon standout Chris Duarte. All three left the game within the first 10 minutes of the second half and never returned.
“It was a rough one,” WSU coach Kyle Smith said. “They were hard to keep off the glass and we were getting on the offensive glass, too. Dishon (Jackson) said he got an elbow to the gut and there was a lot of whistles, but it was just a good, this time of year, February, late game.”
For the eighth time this season, Smith modified his starting lineup, replacing freshman forward Andrej Jakimovski, who’d made just 2 of his last 20 shots from beyond the arc, with Rodman, a solid three-pointer shooter who gives the Cougars an edge on defense.
It was a positive one from the jump. Rodman connected on three early 3-pointers and was a large reason why the Cougars raced out to a 36-31 halftime lead. Though WSU couldn’t get a three-pointer to fall in the first half of the last game at Washington, the Cougars erupted for eight before halftime in Eugene, with Bonton, Rodman and Williams combining for seven.
But Rodman’s night ended just a few minutes into the second half, when the forward crashed to the floor, covering his nose with a towel once he returned to the bench. Jakimovski was productive in relief, hitting his first three-pointer since a Jan. 16 game at USC, while finishing with five points and four rebounds.
“I always think DJ, he’s ready for a breakout game anytime and he plays hard, he has a real positive spirit and good energy about him,” Bonton said. “ … Same with Andrej, it’s not any secret he hasn’t been shooting as well as he wants to. He just did other things today. That putback, he was grabbing rebounds, fighting in there. … He didn’t look like he was in a slump and that’s great for us. That’s the way you get out of it.”
The Cougars led by as many as 11 points, but Oregon grabbed its first advantage two-and-a-half minutes in the second half. When WSU stretched its lead back out to eight points with 7:08 left, the Ducks reeled their opponent back in and closed the gap to one point with 11 seconds left.
Noah Williams, who was WSU’s second-leading scorer with 14 points, buried a pair of free throws to make it a three-point game and proceeded to foul Oregon’s Will Richardson on the next possession to prevent the Ducks from shooting a 3. Richardson made just one of two and Bonton sealed the win with one final free throw.
“The last seconds I was a little on edge, just making sure we make the free throws, do everything we need to do,” Bonton said. “They’re a good team, and down the stretch we knew they weren’t going to give up. We knew that, so just wanted to finish out to the last buzzer. It felt good, man. It always feels good to win at home.”