Washington State defense shines in 72-59 win over Stanford, the Cougs' seventh-straight win

Feb. 17—PULLMAN — There may be no way to overstate the importance of Oscar Cluff's defense recently.

In weeks past, Washington State's big man has stayed on the floor because of his offense, using a flurry of post moves to score, a relentless rebounding approach to stick back misses and keep his offense afloat.

The best thing Cluff gave his team this weekend, including in WSU's 72-59 win over Stanford Saturday afternoon, was his defense. He had three blocks and three steals. That's a huge reason why the Cougars held the Cardinal to one of their lowest scoring outputs of the season, helping WSU earn its seventh consecutive win and creep closer to the NCAA Tournament.

"He's just even more engaged defensively," WSU head coach Kyle Smith said of Cluff. "I think he's kind of got the point guard brain in the big body. He kind of maneuvers, tells people where to go. He's got really good hands. That's where he got the three steals."

"It's just all piecing together right now," Cluff said. "The whole team is just playing defense together."

Cluff has had seven blocks in his past two games. He finished with a plus-12 mark in the box score Saturday. At 6-foot-11, he's leveraging his size like never before, denying shots and discouraging others. He has blossomed into the anchor of the WSU defense, which has permitted 65 points or fewer in four straight games, forcing opponents into a field-goal percentage of 46% — 20th in the nation.

As an indirect result, it is limiting the minutes of true freshman center Rueben Chinyelu, whose raw athleticism has helped him become a reliable shot-blocker. But WSU can get that from Cluff, who provides better offense. That's a big reason why Chinyelu played 15 minutes Thursday against California and 7 minutes on Saturday against Stanford.

On Saturday, it all came together in the second half, when Stanford shot 33% from the floor. The Cardinal turned it over on nearly a quarter of their possessions, which helped the Cougs run away , including a 10-0 surge that began with an Andrej Jakimovski 3-pointer and ended with a dunk from forward Isaac Jones, who used a 15-point afternoon to eclipse 1,000 career points.

It's one thing for WSU (20-6, 11-4 Pac-12) to limit the scoring of some Pac-12 teams. It's another for the Cougs to do it to the Cardinal, a high-scoring team that shoots 3-pointers left and right. Stanford ranks No. 22 nationally in effective field-goal percentage at 55%. The Cardinal posted a 49% mark in Saturday's affair.

WSU is pulling it off by switching defenses often, by starting in man and going zone when the ball reaches certain areas of the court. It vexes opponents and forces them into bad looks. Stanford became the latest victim.

Lost in the shuffle of the Cougars' magical season — lost in the emergence of Myles Rice, who totaled 10 of his 14 points in the second half, lost in the development of wing Jaylen Wells, who led the team with 15 points — is their defense. They rank No. 14 nationwide in defense on shots inside the arc, yielding 45%.

It's the earliest WSU has earned win No. 20 since 2007-08, which is also the last time the program made the NCAA Tournament. The Cougars have played their way off the tournament bubble, at least according to the majority of projections, and when Saturday's win went final, they stood one game back of the lead in the Pac-12.

"We appreciate it, but I think we're just taking it day by day and game by game," said Jakimovski, who had 13 points and six rebounds. "Obviously, we have a lot of compliments and there are people asking, 'What's different in this year's team from last year's team and the year before?' And I'm always saying we have such a good group of guys. We love each other. We hang out off the court. You can see the connection we have on the court."

Central to WSU's win, its 10th in 11 tries, was the play of Rice. He slogged through a forgettable first half: four points (1-for-5 shooting from the field), three assists, three turnovers. He wasn't particularly aggressive, and when he was, he wasn't connecting at the clip he's used to.

Then he turned it on in the second half: 10 points (3-for-7 shooting from the field), two assists, three more turnovers. He won't like a six-turnover game — he's averaging 2.3 per game — but he wasn't gun-shy in the second half. That's important from the team's best player.

The best evidence Rice is refusing to let sloppy showings faze him came early in the second half. Stanford had just scored six straight points, taking a 47-42 lead. The Cardinal still couldn't miss. Their offense kept revving to life.

Then, on a WSU possession, the ball came to Rice on the wing. He hit a 3-pointer, a key bucket that wrested some momentum away from Stanford. On the Cougars' next trip down, Wells had it in the corner and slung it over to Rice, this time on the other wing. He displayed zero hesitation in rising up for another 3-pointer. Beasley Coliseum's season-best attendance of 5,671 roared its approval as Rice swung his fist.

It might be the final piece to the puzzle of Rice's redshirt freshman season. He is shooting 33% on 3.8 3-pointers per game. He would still prefer to get to the rim or launch a midrange jumper. But he said it himself after WSU's win over Cal on Thursday: He's becoming far more comfortable from beyond the arc, too.

"He just has to be aggressive," Jakimovski said. "There were a couple times where the defense was going under ball screens, so he has to take those shots. I think he made two really huge 3s in the second half. That's it — just be confident."

It's a Quad 3 win for Washington State, which visits Arizona and Arizona State next weekend. The Cougs, who came five spots away from appearing in this week's AP Top 25, might crack the rankings come Sunday morning. It would be their first time doing so in 16 years.

WSU is accomplishing many firsts this season. To reach the one that really matters, the NCAA Tournament, the Cougars could use at least one win next weekend.

Greg Woods can be reached by email at