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Ready for the moment, WSU's Isaiah Watts leads Cougars in crunch time to 66-61 win over Drake

Mar. 21—OMAHA, Neb. — Isaiah Watts lifted his arms above his head and called his Washington State teammates together, his seventh-seeded Cougars moments away from a 66-61 win over 10th-seeded Drake in Thursday's NCAA Tournament opener, and tried to calm everyone down.

In this moment, the final stages of the Cougars' victory in their first national dance since 2008, Watts was playing leader. Captain. The guy who points his players in the right direction. As chaos unfolded around them, the CHI Health Center roaring its approval as the clock passed 11 p.m. local, Watts was doing something he normally doesn't.

He earned the privilege by doing something he usually does. Moments prior, he canned perhaps the biggest shot of his life, a wing triple for a 61-59 lead, the Cougs' first advantage since early in the first half. It gave WSU exactly what it needed: A spark of energy, surging out of the offensive haze that hung over the Cougs nearly the whole way.

"That's just who Isaiah is," WSU guard Myles Rice said. "He has a lot of guts to take shots like that. I have full faith in him when he takes those types of shots. That's the type of player he is."

"It felt great off the hands," Watts said. "I feel like that's a shot I've hit pretty much all year — that wing. It felt like a routine shot. He didn't have a hand up, and I really saw over him. So I just shot it."

WSU, which moves on to face Iowa State in Saturday's Round of 32, needed every ounce of that offensive juice. The Cougars may have gotten 20 points from forward Isaac Jones, who scored four of his points in the final five minutes. They may have gotten 17 from Jaylen Wells, who bottomed three key triples, and they may have gotten 9 each from Rice and Andrej Jakimovski each.

But nobody contributed to this win like Watts did. He may have only knocked down the one 3, but considering the way the Cougars were struggling beforehand, it was critical. For the game, WSU shot just 38% from the floor and lost 13 turnovers. The Cougs made just 5 of 17 layups. It was the same kind of offensive fog that plagued them in their loss to Colorado at last week's Pac-12 Tournament semifinals, even in their loss to Washington in their regular-season finale two weeks prior.

Moving on to the round of 32 for just the fourth time in program history, the Cougs never relinquished the lead when they gained it on the Watts triple. He went to the line for two free throws, good for a 63-59 lead, and they padded it with another freebie from Jakimovski. All told, the Bulldogs scored just once in the final two minutes, an uncontested layup WSU conceded in an effort to avoid fouling and run more time off the clock.

That followed the earlier theater in the game. Drake seized its largest lead of the game with around eight minutes to play, 54-46, when things seemed bleak for WSU. At that point, the Cougars had made just 1 of their last 10 shots, with 12 turnovers to go with a 37% shooting mark. It wasn't that they were having trouble scoring. They couldn't seem to do so even at the rim, where they missed a number of looks.

If the Cougars were frustrated, they rarely showed it.

"I think a lot of our identity comes from defense," Wells said. "We never lose confidence in anyone else. We have our captains — they always keep us together, always motivating us. We never get down. We're always together. We're always a family, on and off the court."

Indeed, WSU stayed in the game thanks to its defense. The Cougars held Bulldogs star Tucker DeVries to 14 points on 18 shots, his lowest scoring output since late January, in a game his team won by 49. They forced 8 turnovers for 13 points. They permitted just two 3s in the second half.

For WSU, the effort became easier when Drake center Darnell Brodie got in foul trouble — and when he left the game. He picked up his fourth foul with around 4 1/2 minutes left, and two minutes of game time later, Jones made a concerted effort to attack him. He put up a turnaround flip shot. Miss. Jones snared the rebound and went up into Brodie, who was whistled for his fifth and final foul, disqualifying him from the game.

"I just had to use my quickness," said Jones, who picked up his own fourth foul with 3 1/2 minutes to play. "I'm faster than him, and he was in foul trouble. I knew he didn't wanna foul. For someone that big to guard me, it's hard to keep (me) in front, so I wanted to keep punishing him and get the lead that way."

"We were just fortunate he played pretty smart," WSU coach Kyle Smith said, "with trying to play with four down the stretch without fouling and fouling out. He made a big difference and probably made the difference in the game."

The shot that earned the Cougs another game in this charmed season, though, belonged to a true freshman. Watts may have hit similar shots in previous games — he did so to beat USC in late February — but he had never done it here, on a national stage, on national TV, before a crowd scattered around the country.

"You could definitely feel the momentum," Watts said. "With a big shot like that, especially in March, you know it means a lot. It just gives us energy."

On Thursday, Watts gave the Cougs a lot more. He gave them another game to play.