Wazzu provides hostile homecoming for Noah Williams in Apple Cup

Williams leads UW in scoring, Cougars win 56-51

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COLE QUINN

UW guard and ex-WSU player Noah Williams walks back to the tunnel after losing to WSU 51-56, Feb. 11, 2023, in Pullman, Wash.

SAM TAYLOR, Evergreen sports editor

“Wazzu Reject” was the tamer of the collection of chants the WSU student section shouted at Saturday’s Pullman edition of the Apple Cup in Noah Williams’ much-anticipated return to the Palouse.

Williams did the unthinkable in transferring from WSU to its bitter in-state rival University of Washington in the offseason. In the annual Pullman bout of the two men’s basketball programs, all eyes were on Williams and how he would respond.

Williams seemed up to the challenge.

About five minutes into the game, Williams jumped off the bench and onto the hardwood for the Huskies. A wave of boos and jeers rained down on Williams the second he touched the court and every time he touched the ball. 

The Apple Cup was the first game in which fans were allowed to drink alcohol in most sections of Beasley rather than being contained to a few designated sections. 

One could say it was booze and boos that kept the crowd loud through the Cougars’ 56-51 Apple Cup victory.

Whoever led the “Wazzu Rejects” chant knew their history. After beating UW in Seattle and being greeted by the Husky fan’s “UW Rejects” chant directed at the Cougs, Williams took a great deal of pride in getting the last word in a game in which he dropped 15 points with 9 coming from the free throw line.

Williams always seemed to play his best for the Cougs against UW, especially in Seattle.

That ‘UW rejects’ (chant), I don’t know what they’re talking about, because I feel like they’re WSU rejects,” Williams said in a postgame presser Feb. 28, 2020.

The other chants incorporated language not suitable for children, making it perfectly obvious why WSU football head coach Jake Dickert attended the game with his wife sitting courtside and not in the stands with his children as he had before.

TJ Bamba and Mouhamed Gueye said in the postgame presser they could not understand the student section’s chants. 

After the Cougs won, both teams joined the high-five line of good sportsmanship.

Last in each line were the former roommates: Williams and Bamba.

The two shared a hug, spoke for a few seconds and parted ways.

“I don’t wish for nobody to speak bad about [Williams], there’s a lot going on. But at the end of the day, he is with our rivals now so anything goes. Especially like you know on the basketball court, I was locked in you know the feeling,” Bamba said in the postgame presser with a slight smirk on his face.

“That was the whole message the whole week coming from the staff like don’t make it more than what it is, it’s just a basketball game, just a rivalry,” Bamba said.

Williams aside, the Cougars did not play their best basketball Saturday. Neither did the Huskies.

Both schools have stayed in the middle of the Pac-12, playing up to their tough completion in most cases and being on the other side of that coin in which teams below them in the standings usually seem to have a chance.

The Cougars shot poorly in all three facets of offense: 29.3% from the field,

26.7% from three and 66.7% from the free throw line.

The Huskies helped them out with a similarly dismal offensive showing (33.9, 22.2 and 64.3% from the field, 3-point line and free throw line respectively).

Williams has his own reasons for transferring. The Seattle native and O’Dea High School alum said publicly he wanted to play closer to home. There are no D-I power six programs closer to Seattle than the one in Seattle, so in that sense, UW was a logical choice.

When Williams chose to join head coach Kyle Smith’s program in 2019, he was largely considered to be a rising star.

Williams’ father Guy Williams played basketball for WSU from the 1981–83 seasons before playing in the NBA, so for a college fanbase that values family, the story seemed to be writing itself.

Williams certainly had his moments, and for the better part of three seasons, he was one of the best players on the team.

HAILEE SPEIR
WSU guard Noah Williams (24) jumps for a layup during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Oregon in Beasley Coliseum, March 5, 2022.

However, mid-way through the 2021–22 season, Williams began spending less time on the court and more time on the bench as he experienced a setback from his 2020—21 season, in which he averaged 30 minutes per game and shot 40% from the field and 37.9% from three.

His numbers declined to 25 minutes per game, 33% from the field and 26% from three.

Based on his on-court performance, it was clear Williams needed a change.

HAILEE SPEIR
WSU guard Myles Rice consoles teammate Noah Williams (24) after losing to the University of Southern California 61-63 at Beasley Coliseum, Saturday, Dec. 4, 2021, in Pullman, Wash.

With the Huskies, Williams has seen his numbers improve from his junior season but not quite reach the summit of his sophomore season. He averages 25 minutes per game, 37.5% from the field (almost 5% more than last season) and 31% from three (5% more than last season).  

He also spent about seven weeks in November and December of 2022 sidelined because of injury, but his progress in Pac-12 Conference play has been encouraging. With 8.7 points per game, he is far from the offensive star the Cougs hoped he could be when they recruited him but about what UW probably expected from a senior transfer.

On Saturday, however, Williams almost got the last laugh over his former school as he led the Huskies in scoring with 12 points, including two 3-pointers.

On each of his 3-pointers, there was a brief moment of silence and shock, when just a year prior a Williams three would have produced a joyous roar.

“I think Noah handled it well too, to be honest, I think Noah really played within himself, within the team,” Smith said in his postgame press conference when asked about how Williams handled his return to Pullman.

While fans certainly have their own thoughts, Smith, Bamba and the entire WSU program have no ill will toward Williams and handled the potentially hostile homecoming with grace and professionalism

“He said love you, coach and I said love you too and that’s that,” Smith said. “You want to see guys grow up and it seemed like he played well. Like I said, he played well, we won, it’s great.”

The Cougs and Huskies will play round two of the Apple Cup at 8 p.m. March 2 in Seattle.