PULLMAN – Klay Thompson floated to the right corner.
Outside the 3-point line, just in front of the Gonzaga student section, the Washington State University sophomore waited patiently.
The Cougars moved the ball to the opposite side of the court. All eyes in the McCarthey Athletic Center followed. Except two.
Those of Steven Gray.
Gonzaga’s 6-foot-5, 208-pound junior guard watched Thompson. Almost 40 feet from the ball, his back turned to the basket, Gray’s feet were firmly planted. He wasn’t going to let the nation’s leading scorer get away.
When Thompson cut, Gray reacted. A bump, a shiver, all within the rules, and Thompson’s movement was stifled, the timing of the play disrupted.
It would be that way all night as GU pulled out a 74-69 win Dec. 2, snapping the Cougars’ season-opening six-game winning streak.
“I don’t think Klay got an open look all night,” Gonzaga’s Matt Bouldin said. “That’s probably the reason we won that game.”
“My assignment for the game (was to) make things difficult for (Thompson),” Gray said.
Thompson was averaging 28.3 points per game heading in and coming off a career-high 43-point performance against the University of San Diego. By forcing him into a 6-for-21 shooting night and a season-low 15 points, the Bulldogs’ Gray set a template for defending WSU’s top offensive threat – get physical with the 6-6, 200-pound sharpshooter.
“For the first six games, he played against a certain level of competition,” said coach Ken Bone, who is 7-2 in his first year at WSU. “Then all of a sudden to go against a Gonzaga and Kansas State, who can throw bigger, stronger, quicker bodies at him, and rotate them, it’s a whole other ballgame.”
Against Kansas State last Saturday, Thompson, who averaged 12.5 points as a freshman in Tony Bennett’s slower-paced system, was harassed by Dominique Sutton, a 6-5, 210-pound junior.
Sutton’s physical defense resulted in Thompson shooting a career-high 11 free-throw attempts but also turning the ball over a season-high nine times and hitting just 5 of 15 shots.
“He was forcing some things,” Sutton told the Kansas City Star. “He was trying to force his shot. I just tried to contain him.”
“He’ll get better for it,” Bone said. “As he gets better through those experiences, I think we become better as a team too.”
Though Thompson is still second in the nation in scoring (25.8) – after getting 25 against Idaho in WSU’s 76-64 win Wednesday – he knows that the rest of the season he’ll face the bumps and bruises of defenses keyed to stop him.
“The Pac-10, LSU, Air Force, real physical teams,” Thompson said. “I just have to get prepared.”
So what can the other Cougars do to help?
“When we can hit shots, it makes it easier for Klay,” said 6-7 power forward Abe Lodwick, who hit two 3-pointers against the Vandals. “We’re a lot more dangerous, because I feel like that frees up Klay.”
With Idaho giving him more space as his teammates hit nearly 50 percent of their 3-point attempts, Thompson scored 15 first-half points and led a second-half surge that ensured the victory.
What can Thompson do to help himself?
“I think he’s learned he needs to work on his ball handling,” Bone said. “He’s been in the gym, I think, each day since we got back from Kansas State, working on his ball handling and going against pressure defense. He’ll continue to see that.”
He’ll have to deal with it, starting Saturday in the Spokane Arena when 5-2 Air Force visits.
“It’s important, because we go to him a lot,” Bone said. “He’s by far our best scorer. He gets a lot of shots and that will continue. We need him to make shots.”