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PULLMAN, Wash. — The Runnin' Utes hoped to avoid an 0-5 start to the conference season when they visited fellow winless program Washington State on Wednesday night.
The Cougars, who had struggled shooting the ball during their 0-3 start in the Pac-12, came out of their slump en route to a 75-65 victory over the Utes.
Washington State shot 50 percent from the field, including 55 percent from beyond the arc, where the team hit 11 3-pointers. Those numbers were up from season averages — 43 percent on field goals and 32 percent on 3-point shots.
"There was an article in the Spokane paper about their shooting woes," Utah head coach Larry Krystkowiak told the ESPN 700 broadcast. "The thing is, there were only two of them, according to our coaching staff, that were open 3s. The rest were all contested."
Senior guard Mike Ladd did much of the damage for the Cougars, shooting 7 for 12, including 5 for 8 from downtown on his way to a game-high 22 points and six rebounds. On the season, Ladd is averaging just 9.9 points and shooting just 28 percent from 3-point distance.
Utah managed to hold the Cougars' leading scorer, Brock Motum, scoreless in the first half. But the senior forward, who averages 19.8 points per game, had 14 second-half points to go with his eight boards and three steals.
Sophomore guard Royce Woolridge also scored 14 with six assists for WSU, while junior forward D.J. Shelton and sophomore guard DaVonte Lacy each added 10 apiece.
The bombs started falling from the get-go, with the Cougars draining 3s on three of their first four possessions, jumping out to an early 9-1 lead.
The Utes fought back, crawling within one after senior guard Jarred DuBois hit a jumper to make it 12-11 a minute shy of the first period's halfway point.
Washington State responded with a 7-1 run, which led into a flurry of 3-point shooting.
Over a span of 2:12, the two teams combined to hit six consecutive 3-pointers — three by Ladd, one by Woolridge and two by Utah freshman Brandon Taylor.
The Cougars led 30-19 after that dust settled, soon carrying a 34-26 lead into the half.
The second half only showed an increase in Washington State's lead, amounting a 47-31 advantage with 12:43 remaining.
Utah then put together a 10-0 run to come within six, but that was as close as it could get. The Cougars responded with an 8-0 run to put the game back out of reach, where it remained until the first conference victory had been claimed for WSU (10-7, 1-3).
Taylor led the Utes in scoring with 13 points, hitting 3 of 4 from beyond the arc, to go with three assists and three rebounds. Fellow freshman guard Justin Seymour scored 11 with five assists and five boards, while senior center Jason Washburn added 10 points and six rebounds.
The Utes shot 46 percent, including 47 percent from long range, and outrebounded the Cougars 29-26.
But Utah turned the ball over 17 times, on which WSU capitalized for a devastating 28 points.
"We had plenty of mistakes along the way, turning the ball over," Krystkowiak said. "But it's just simple pass-and-catch stuff. It wasn't like pressure where you're pulling your hair out trying to figure out why you're turning it over."
The Utes are still winless in the Pac-12 (8-9, 0-5), and the road doesn't get any easier. They head to Seattle to face Washington (12-5, 4-0) on Saturday.
Each loss becomes more and more crushing to this young Utah team; despite all its improvements this season, it remains unable to clinch a conference victory that last year's six-win squad was able to achieve in just its second conference matchup — granted the Pac-12 as a conference is better all around this season than last. That win last year came in overtime over this same WSU program in Salt Lake City.
Perhaps Krystkowiak will begin looking more to the future, giving more playing time to talented young freshmen Taylor, Seymour, Dakarai Tucker, and Jeremy Olsen, in hopes of getting them some valuable experience during conference play.
"We had some young kids that were making some plays and playing with some moxie and confidence," said Krystkowiak. "Certainly, we're trying to win games this year, and that's our focal point. But we've got a group of young kids that might earn some time. It can help with the building of this program. It's important that they're given a chance, as long as they're bringing the effort that they brought tonight, to step up to the occasion."
Like those freshmen, the season is still young — relatively speaking. There is plenty of ball left to play, and Coach K's staff still has ample time to get matters straightened out.
Their first chance will be at Washington on Saturday night at 9 p.m. MST, a game that will air on ESPNU and on the radio at 700 AM.
Tyson Maddy has covered the University of Utah football and men's basketball teams as a contributing writer for KSL.com Sports since 2011. Follow his Utes coverage on twitter @Tyson_Maddy