No. 21 WSU topples No. 4 Arizona for 77-74 win, vaulting into first place in Pac-12

Feb. 23—TUCSON, Ariz. — Not a soul accompanied Jaylen Wells, the Washington State wing who had just sunk the dagger in No. 4 Arizona. Nobody walked with him down the tunnel, just outside the McKale Center, where he had just knocked down the shot of his life, a four-point play that sealed one of the single biggest wins in program history.

Instead, Wells wore a gray jacket and slung on a gray backpack backwards, striding away from the court and toward the exit. It had all died down: The chaos, the party, the celebration that followed the No. 21 Cougars' 77-74 upset of the No. 4 Wildcats.

Instead, the only thing that followed Wells was silence, which is not the kind of treatment he should get used to.

In the days ahead, Wells will grow to understand the gravity of that shot, which will live in school lore forever. It helped WSU vault Arizona for first place in the Pac-12. It all but punched the Cougars' ticket to the NCAA Tournament, which they have not reached since 2008, one of the longest active droughts among Power Five conference teams.

In this moment, though, Wells was himself: Unflappable. Poker face. Relaxed. He flashed a smile minutes earlier, when he told reporters that he couldn't see the rim when he let the shot go — "I just heard someone in the crowd go, yeah, dawg," Wells said — but that's about as much excitement as Wells showed.

"People were saying, you guys gotta go play Arizona," Wells said. "Nah, they gotta play us."

For the game, Wells totaled 27 points on six 3-pointers, his finest work in his breakout season. A former Division-II star at California's Sonoma State, Wells has blossomed into one of the conference's best shooters, entering Thursday's game shooting 45% from deep. But on Thursday, his teammates had never appreciated his misses so much, because they helped the Cougars stay afloat and earn their second win over the Wildcats this season — and hand them their first home loss all year.

"He's in the gym so much, he probably knows where he is on the floor," said WSU coach Kyle Smith, who also got a key 16 points from forward Isaac Jones and 12 from freshman center Rueben Chinyelu. "He probably has the muscle memory there."

So much more went into this win, the Cougs' eighth in a row. Chinyelu played 28 minutes, by far a career-high, which gave him time to grab 11 rebounds and stave off Arizona's bruising center, Oumar Ballo. Jones scored 13 of his 16 points in the second half, including riding four fouls to hit two key free throws, which put WSU up 69-68 with two minutes left.

Then, in the final seconds, Jones rotated over to block a potential game-winner from Love, who fell down and traveled on the Wildcats' ensuing possession. Possession went back to WSU, which inbounded it to Wells, allowing him to go to the free throw line and hit the two free throws that iced the game.

For the Cougs, it amounted to a timely play in a game filled with many like it. Moments earlier, Wells bailed his team out of a wayward offensive trip by fading away and knocking down a midrange jumper, good for a 71-69 lead with just under two minutes left. Even earlier, with around five minutes left, Wells showed no hesitation in drilling a long catch-and-shoot triple, which gave the visitors a 67-63 lead.

The Wildcats kept responding. So did the Cougars. UA forward Keshad Johnson followed Wells' jumper with a floater to tie the game. The Wildcats' next bucket came from Love, who got downhill and finished through contact for an and-one, sending McKale into delirium as Arizona took a 74-71 lead with 51 seconds to play.

That's about when Wells canned the shot of his young life. The sequence has been viewed millions of times. Here is Wells' recollection of it.

"I caught the ball, I shot it, I didn't see the rim," Wells said. "I was laying on the ground. The dude was sitting on me. I look up, and I hear someone go, yeah, dawg! I was like, oh, I made it. I got up, and my team was like, you made it. I'm like, oh my God. I did not know I made it."

Instead, the honors went to the audience, which watched Washington State register one of — if not the — biggest wins in program history. One of the two Pac-12 teams left behind in realignment vanquished one of the 10 outbound, a reminder for Smith that as much as he tries to push back against the underdog trope, it is not leaving WSU.

"That's kinda what Pullman's about, anyway," Smith said of the town of roughly 30,000. "You can hear it in our Ballad of the Palouse we're singing. It's already kinda built into the DNA."

Whatever it is, it's fueling the Cougs, who won this game on unfamiliar terms. They spent much of closing time without the services of star guard Myles Rice, who struggled to the tune of 5 points on 2-for-12 shooting. Rice has supplied a steady hand for WSU all season, including in his team's win over Arizona last month in Pullman, where he canned back-to-back shots to put the game out of reach.

Instead, Washington State turned to reserve guard Kymany Houinsou, who posted 8 points and 4 rebounds in 20 minutes, his most playing time in nearly two weeks. He fed Jones on a key alley-oop, which gave WSU a 50-49 lead. He also got inside and stuck back a miss, pushing his team ahead 60-55, and he hit two free throws for a 62-61 lead.

If nothing else, it is a testament to the pulse of Smith, who is no stranger to changing on the fly. Headed into this season, he had to replace each of his top four scorers, who all either transferred or turned pro. He landed Wells from a DII, Jones from a midmajor, Cluff from a junior college, Rice from an Atlanta high school team that rostered much bigger stars than he, which is to say nothing of the fact he spent last year recovering from Hodgkin's Lymphoma — a story he is minimizing with each scintillating outing he puts on the court.

For Smith, those efforts were a lot harder than the coaching decisions he had to make in crunch time Thursday.

Those were: With 6 1/2 minutes left, he subbed out Jones, who had picked up his fourth foul. Without Jones, WSU was losing the 6-foot-9 playmaker who had just scored eight straight points, helping the Cougs swap a one-point deficit for a five-point lead. Two minutes of game time later, Smith re-inserted Jones, who did not foul out.

Smith also realized his best option at center was Chinyelu, the true freshman whose raw athleticism and strength went best against Ballo. So Smith took out center Oscar Cluff — whose father, Steve, and his girlfriend, Robyn, flew from their home country of Australia for the game — and subbed in Chinyelu, who pulled down 3 offensive rebounds, helping WSU total 14 second-chance points.

The bigger decision — the one that might have even felt strange to Smith — was to go away from Rice. He couldn't shake the length and physicality of Arizona, which cycled through several defenders on him. For just the second time in 14 games, Rice failed to score in double figures, and for the first time all season, he shot less than 20% from the floor.

It hardly mattered to the Cougars, who had the depth to withstand Rice's off game. They also had the fortitude, which goes a long way in winning a game before 14,000 fans.

"This is big. There's a lot of moments we could have folded," Wells said. "We stayed poised. Kept fighting back. I think this is a big win for us because they thought we were underdogs."

Before the Cougs could properly celebrate this win, though, they had to commemorate another. That one belonged to assistant coach Jeremy Harden, a Tucson native who took center court to propose to his girlfriend, Megan Yanda, who said yes. After the initial party, Washington State players learned that something had happened back on the court, so they left en masse to see what the commotion was.

When they found out Harden had just gotten engaged, they mobbed him. Harden disappeared under a horde of Cougs as everyone headed back to the locker room. The wins kept coming for this group.

"I think a lot of it just comes with our stories," Wells said.. "Obviously Isaac comes from a JUCO. I come from DII. Oscar comes from JUCO. Myles, you know his story. We just have a lot of different players that have just come from a lot of places where we didn't really have the resources we have here. So having the resources we have here we don't take it for granted."

For WSU, which visits Arizona State Saturday for another evening tip-off, it may be hard to predict the long-term ramifications of this victory. Will it play a role in landing a future recruit? Will it lead to a longer stay for Smith, who may be up for a promotion anyway? Will it imbue the Cougs with even more confidence, confidence they can win games even bigger than this?

They may be getting the opportunity soon. Even before this win, WSU had played its way off the NCAA Tournament bubble projections, appearing in almost every bracket prediction. That's why, in the bowels of McKale Memorial Center after this win went final, Rice smiled as he chatted with one the team's tutors.

"That's the tourney," Rice said, staying just a moment longer before he joined the party in the locker room. "That's a lock."

It registers as a momentous occasion because it's been a long time since the Cougs had such a privilege. That was back in 2008, when Klay Thompson was a high schooler and the WSU head coach was Tony Bennett, who guided the team to back-to-back NCAA Tournaments, in 2007 as a 3-seed and in 2008 as a 4 seed, making a run to the Sweet 16.

In the years that followed, the Cougs entered disarray, hiring new coach Ken Bone, whose WSU programs recorded winning seasons in his first three years. The Cougs then won just seven conference games across the next two campaigns, leading to his dismissal after the 2014 season.

The reins then went to coach Ernie Kent, who failed to lead WSU to a winning season in all five of his seasons (2014-2019). The Cougs went 4-14 in Pac-12 play in each of his final two years.

That led to Smith, who took over in time for the 2019 season, an 11-win campaign that sputtered out in the first round of the Pac-12 tournament. A year later, the pandemic ended WSU's season after a win in the conference tournament, and a year after that, the Cougars won 14 games in a pandemic-altered season.

In 2022, WSU made the NIT, which signaled to Smith and Co. what they already sensed — that the team really could do this, that the Cougs could generate a turnaround of a moribund program. At the time, they might have only felt an inkling. Now they can make a statement of fact.

"I told the guys before the season: This is a tournament team. If we don't get there, it's on me," Smith said. "I tried to take the pressure off them because I thought our talent was good enough. And you still don't know going through it."

With one of the most resounding wins Washington State has ever captured in program history, the Cougars might know now.