PULLMAN – Trailing Washington State 32-20 at halftime last month, Oregon State coach Craig Robinson knew he had to get his team back into the game quickly.
So, coming out of the locker room, the Beavers attacked what they perceived to be the weak link of the Cougars’ defense. The first two possessions OSU targeted freshman Klay Thompson, using the player Thompson was guarding, Seth Tarver, to screen for center Roeland Schaftenaar.
On both, Thompson struggled to help or get out of Aron Baynes’ way, and Schaftenaar scored. Within minutes, the revived OSU offense was clicking on all cylinders and the Beavers ultimately rallied for a 54-52 win.
That was possibly the low point of the season for WSU – and Thompson’s defense.
“That was a couple right away, then a couple turnovers, a couple back cuts, just some little things that all of sudden watered us down,” WSU coach Tony Bennett said of the plays following the game.
“I should have helped more,” Thompson says now. “There’s no excuse for that. I remember that. It was just a mental error by me. I try not to have those.”
“Anybody would (have struggled), in the situation he is in,” said senior Taylor Rochestie before practice Wednesday, after explaining how long it took him to learn WSU’s system. “In high school, he even said, he could take a play or two off. In college, you take a play off and you’re almost guaranteed your guy is going to score on you. Call it a coincidence, but it happens almost every time.”
But this is now, the undisputed high point of the year for the 16-13 Cougars (8-9 in Pac-10 play), with wins over UCLA, Arizona State and Arizona – the first two ranked and the latter winners of seven of eight at the time.
A big part of the recent success is Thompson’s improved defense.
“He’s starting to realize every possession matters, especially playing for a team like Washington State,” said Rochestie, who sat out the last 30 minutes of Wednesday’s practice after jamming a finger on his right hand. Rochestie had X-rays, which were negative, and is expected to return to practice today.
“He’s been in the system for a while,” Bennett said, explaining Thompson’s recent improvement. “It’s not like he’s immune to lapses or breakdowns, but he’s understanding things more and embracing that challenge of being better for the team.”
Early in the season, Washington State’s coaching staff would match Thompson, a 6-foot-6, 187-pound guard with a sweet stroke, on whomever they designated as the opponent’s least-offensive player.
But in his last three games, Thompson has guarded, at times, UCLA’s Josh Shipp, Arizona’s Chase Budinger and ASU’s James Harden – all three among the conference’s scoring leaders.
Thompson has responded, helping to hold the trio about six points less than their scoring averages.
“With him excelling defensively, “it’s not just, ‘Who we going to put him on?’ but ‘Who should we put him on?’ because we think he can do well defensively,” Rochestie said.
The emergence of Thompson as a defender has not only solidified that end of the court, it’s helped the Cougars’ offense as well.
He’s playing more, averaging 39 minutes in the last three games, six more than his season average.
“If he’s not tired, we want to keep him in the game, because of what he gives us offensively,” said Rochestie, who shares team-high scoring honors with Thompson at 13.3 points per game. “He’s not just a scoring option, but he’s also a decoy if he’s not the one scoring. That opens up players like Caleb (Forrest), and if Daven (Harmeling) is in there, to shoot 3s.”
With Thompson able to guard anyone from a shooting guard to a small forward, the Cougars’ rotation has been able to shrink, allowing the better scorers to stay on the court longer.
“We’ve gone to more of an eight-man rotation, and I think that’s helped us (offensively),” Bennett said. “Our system is challenging. It’s not like we stand in a zone. You’ve got to work. Then offensively, you’ve got to move and work. That’s why you get into great shape.
“It’s a battle of your mind and your body, and you have to be tough enough to handle it.”
The soft-spoken Thompson has proven he is.
Still, he’s reticent to talk about himself, but he did admit he’s worked hard at the defensive end of the court and believes it’s showing.
“It seems like it if you watch film,” he said. “I think I’m improving on that every day.”
Pondexter will play
Coach Lorenzo Romar said Quincy Pondexter, a key contributor in the No. 16 Huskies’ rise to the top of the Pac-10 will play in Saturday’s showdown with WSU.
The Huskies (23-7, 13-4 Pac-10) are on the verge of their first outright conference title since 1953.
Pondexter injured his ribs, right shoulder and back in a hard fall late in the first half of Tuesday’s win over Seattle University.
He says initially he was scared his season was over, adding that waking up Wednesday was rough.
But he vows he will play against the Cougars.
The junior has averaged 11.5 points per game while starting all 30 games this season.