Cougs beat Cal to almost cement winning season

It was too close on Saturday, but Wazzu got it done



WSU forward Mouhamed Gueye dribbles toward the basket during an NCAA basketball game against Oregon State, Feb. 16, 2023, in Pullman, Wash.

HAYDEN STINCHFIELD, Evergreen sports co-editor

Close games are this team’s bread and butter. The worst teams they have faced this year have often managed to make it close and the much better teams have failed to blow the Cougs out. Maybe this is a good experience to be getting as the tournament draws nearer, but that did not make it any less frightening while it was happening.

WSU men’s basketball (15-15, 10-9 Pac-12) finally broke .500 in-conference with the win over Cal (3-15, 3 Pac-12 by a score of 63-57 Saturday.

Cal’s starting center Lars Thiemann was out with an ankle injury in this one while the Cougs were still without Adrame Diongue.

The game started with a Mouhamed Gueye swish from three only 20 seconds into the game and a Cal airball from three 10 seconds later. Gueye then immediately scored on a close hook shot, which was met by a Kuany Kuany layup and then a Kuany three to tie the game at five.

Gueye got and made two free throws and with three minutes gone, just two players had all the points for each team.

This matched scoring continued for much of the first half, with the Cougs struggling to get much to happen and Cal having the types of struggles that a shorthanded 2-16 team is expected to have.

It took several minutes before either team managed to break the 7-5 lock that Gueye and Kuany had created. Jack Wilson checked in with just over 14 minutes left in the first half in his second to last regular season game for the Cougs. He had not scored yet this season and he clearly knew it.

He posted up when the ball hit his hands and made a tough lefty hook shot from around six feet out. The Cougs needed these points, as it created a four-point lead that was immediately cut to a two-point lead by the Golden Bears.

Fortunately, Gueye checked back into the game and helped to create a 9-point lead at 21-12 with eight minutes left. This lead was met with a 14-8 run by the Golden Bears to enter the half down only 3 points.

This game was supposed to be a blowout but at halftime, it looked all too familiar. The score was 29-26.

Gueye was leading all scorers with 11 on a rough 28% shooting, having made only two shots from the field. Kuany was still leading Cal with 9 on 50% shooting from both the field and 3-point range. Both teams were shooting less than 30% from three and below 40% from the field. It was to be another brawl.

Cal opened the second half with a dunk to pull within one, but Bamba was ready and hit a three to make the lead four. Joel Brown met that with a layup and then a few scoreless possessions later he got a steal and assisted on a dunk to tie the game.

Gueye posted up and showed why he was the best draft prospect on the court by posting up and creating an and-1 that gave the Cougs a 3-point lead. It was quickly turned back into a tie by Sam Alajiki.

The same story kept happening. The Cougs build a little lead and the Bears tie it up with a run of their own. Luckily every time Cal had the chance to take the lead they failed to do so, but the Cougs were failing in the same way whenever they had a chance to build a definitive gap.

At the 10-minute mark, Brown scored on a layup to make it 42-41. The lead had not been bigger than four all half. Right before the seven was on the clock Bamba hit a very deep three and pushed the lead to five. If they were ever going to create momentum and pull ahead it had to be now. Time was running out.

While they failed to score initially from that momentum, the defense was holding and the gap stayed at five. Jabe Mullins got free throws with 5:19 left in the game and put the lead at 7. Gueye hit a fadeaway from near the 3-point line and put the lead back at 9.

Things were starting to fall into place. Gueye got his league-leading 14th double-double of the year with a rebound at the two-minute mark and Bamba dunked it in on the next possession to make the lead 10 with 1:30 left.

The final score was 63-57. Ultimately, as the game grew too close too late the Cougs proved that they have the offensive firepower to create a big lead when it is needed. That is a good thing to see moving toward the Pac-12 tournament in Las Vegas.

Gueye finished with 20 points and 10 rebounds, followed closely by Bamba who had 19 points. DJ Rodman had only 3 points but pulled down 10 rebounds.

The Cougs got over .500 in league play with this win, now 10-9 with only one game left. Their season record is 15-15. They have won five straight en route to a winning season, doing everything necessary in some scary games to claw their way out of a losing season. They have one game left to secure the winning season that seemed so impossible just a month ago.

Wazzu did something that even program legend Klay Thompson never did: get 10 wins in conference play. The legend himself mentioned this when he visited the Cougars’ locker room after watching Wazzu win from the excellent vantage point of courtside seats in Berkley, a mere 33-minute drive from the Golden State Warriors Chase Center.

The final battle comes against UW at 8 p.m. Thursday in Seattle. Fans can watch the culmination of the season on ESPNU or the ESPN app.