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Washington State knocks off No. 8 Arizona, 73-70, behind clutch shot-making and timely defense

Jan. 13—PULLMAN — Jaylen Wells could barely keep the smile off his face as he positioned his iPhone.

"Wait for it," the Washington State wing said to his Instagram Live audience. "Wait for it."

In the Cougars' locker room after their 73-70 upset of No. 8 Arizona Saturday afternoon, there hung an excitement, a restless anticipation for the arrival of head coach Kyle Smith. WSU players gathered in a circle.

Then Smith walked into the middle, in perfect position for players to spray him with water, shouting and laughing in jubilee. They jumped and screamed, flinging water every which way, basking in the glow of a statement win over a blue-blood program.

It was that and more for WSU (12-5, 3-3 Pac-12), which got 24 points and 13 rebounds from forward Isaac Jones and 18 points from guard Myles Rice, who hit a midrange pull-up for a 71-67 lead in the final seconds. He finished it off with two free throws, sealing WSU's first home win over a top-10 foe in four years.

"That was just a really great effort by our team," Smith said. "Especially defensively. They're such a high-octane, potent team. A big part of that is not turning it over against them. I think we only had nine turnovers. That was huge."

The Cougars, who also got 11 points and seven rebounds from Wells, led almost the entire way. They took a 34-30 lead into halftime. They used a 6-0 lead to open an eight-point lead in the opening minutes of the second half. They responded to every Arizona push with one of their own, nursing a 51-55 lead in the final 8 minutes.

That's when Arizona threatened to take control. The Wildcats scored six straight to take a 57-55 lead when a 3-pointer from transfer guard Caleb Love fell through the net. Love totaled 28 points. He looked poised to singlehandedly stave off a setback.

The Cougars never blinked. Jones got to the rim for a basket. Wells followed with an off-balance jumper. Then Rice joined the attack, parlaying his quickness into a dribble-handoff opportunity, curling around a screen from Oscar Cluff to can a critical 3-pointer. That gave the Cougars a 62-59 lead as the clock ticked closer to 3 minutes left.

"We never got rattled. We never worried," Rice said. "We just banded together."

From there, it was all about shot-making for WSU. Wells connected on a pair of free throws. Then Rice went back to the pick-and-roll with Cluff, whose screen pried open Rice, who faded to his left, rose up and scored.

Arizona called timeout. Rice jogged to the other end of the court, soaking up the excitement of the 3,564 fans in attendance on this frigid Saturday evening.

"Everybody on the team knows: I work on mini-pulls. I work on midrange jumpers probably more than a lot of people do," Rice said. "I trust my work. I trust my craft. These are the moments that you dream out, beating a ranked team at home, when you're in your driveway, counting down 5, 4, 3, 2, and you shoot it. It was just amazing to do that in front of these fans."

For WSU, the importance of the win comes in the way it might provide an even sunnier future. The Cougars are trying to make the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2008, one of the country's longest droughts. They can get there by racking up more Quad-1 wins like this one, their second of the season after downing Boise State last month. (Depending on how opponents fare the rest of the season, quadrants can change.)

The Cougars need as many as they can get. WSU's strength of schedule ranks No. 60 in the country, per Ken Pom, which means the Cougars need to capitalize on meaningful opportunities.

"I think it just goes to prove that we can compete with anybody in the country," Rice said, "no matter whether it's on the road, at home, at a neutral site. We got the guys in the locker room, the coaches in the locker room as well to go out there and do what we need to do — and our fans support us 100%."

It also shows the importance of Jones' transfer from Idaho . He spent the first two years of his career at Wenatchee Valley College. Then he transferred to Idaho, where he played last season, earning Big Sky Newcomer of the Year honors for several dominating performances.

Encouraging showings, to be sure, but jumping from the Big Sky to the Pac-12 is a leap of faith. Some wondered if Jones could hang with Power Five athletes. So far, Jones has definitely answered yes, with five double-doubles as a Cougar, including three in conference play.

"I think it's huge because it's part of who I am. Like, I got a chip on my shoulder," Jones said. "A lot of them think I shouldn't be here, or that I'm a fluke and I just get lucky. They were telling me in the game, I can't score without getting fouled — and I was like, 'Bro, I got 20.' So I think it's huge."

For WSU, this win will go down as one of the most rousing of the season, a satisfying victory and a night to celebrate — but to the Cougars, it's also a sign of their capabilities. They can prove this wasn't a fluke by beating Stanford on Thursday and California on Saturday.

Soon enough, maybe Wells won't feel compelled to go live on Instagram after wins like these. Maybe they'll start to feel normal.