PULLMAN – Klay Thompson has heard the criticism. How he struggles at big times in big games.
So Wednesday night, before 10,177 in Beasley Coliseum – including a trio of NBA scouts – the 6-foot-6 junior shooting guard did something about it.
And he did it in the Inland Northwest’s biggest game, Washington State’s annual matchup with the Gonzaga Bulldogs.
The result: WSU broke a two-game losing streak to their neighbors from Spokane in a huge way, 81-59.
“With the balance we have this year, that helps (me) a lot,” said Thompson, who showed balance himself, filling the stat line from end-to-end with 24 points, six rebounds, seven steals, six assists and one big block – most of them in a second half that started with Gonzaga within six.
“Teams can’t just focus on me and (Reggie Moore),” he added. “They have to focus on a lot of us because a lot of us can score.”
The big block? That came on Gonzaga’s 7-foot center, Robert Sacre, who had what looked like a dunk midway through the second half. Thompson met him at the rim, the ball bounced back and WSU was off the other way, where Thompson, trailing, pulled up and hit one of his four 3-pointers to give WSU (6-1 overall) an insurmountbale 54-35 lead.
“I felt like (DeAngelo) Casto, blocking a 7-footer,” Thompson said, referring to WSU’s center. “I don’t know if I’ve ever blocked a 7-footer like that before.”
Thompson wasn’t alone on the offensive end, though both of the double-digit contributors were a little unexpected.
Faisal Aden was one, and the only reason it was a little shocking because of his health. The junior tweaked his left knee this week, didn’t take much part in the pregame warmup and spent the first 6 minutes, 20 seconds on the bench with warm packs on his knee. Still, he came off the bench and chipped in 14 points.
“His knee’s sore and he was questionable,” WSU coach Ken Bone said. “In fact, at shoot-around I didn’t think he was going to play at all. And then right before tipoff he told coach (Curtis) Allen he’s like to give it a shot.”
He did, 12 in fact, six of which found the net.
But it was the 11 points from freshman forward Patrick Simon that really helped, including a 3-of-5 effort from beyond the arc that helped stretch the GU defense.
“He’s got ice in his veins,” Bone said.
And he helped ice Gonzaga, which dropped to 4-4 for the first time since 1997.
The Bulldogs struggled all night taking care of the ball – they had 25 turnovers that led to 24 WSU points – and shooting – finishing the night 19 of 48 from the floor, 39.6 percent.
Bone likes to talk about the dangers of an early hot shooting streak, calling it fool’s gold. But the one WSU had midway through the first half looked 14 carat.
The Cougars drained five 3-pointers in 2 minutes, 36 seconds midway through the first half, building a 25-6 lead. WSU was 11 of 21 from beyond the arc on the night. The Zags only answer in the stretch was a single Kelly Olynyk free throw.
But the Bulldogs tightened up the outside defense – switching ball screens and taking away an effective pick-and-pop strategy – and WSU couldn’t answer by scoring off penetration.
After building a 30-13 lead with 5:10 left before the half, WSU didn’t score again. And it missed 11 shots in the stretch, including five within 10 feet.
The Zags jump-started their offense by getting to the free-throw line – they were 4 for their first 19 from the floor – scoring seven of their first 17 points from there. When they began to take care of the ball – they had 11 first-half turnovers – and get their fastbreak going, the shots began to fall. An 11-0 run to end the half cut the WSU lead to 30-24.
At the half, Thompson had three points.
“He kept his composure and came out in the second half and really didn’t force shots,” Bone said. “He just started hitting shots.”
He continued to contribute the little things in the second half, as well, but he started taking the ball to the rim early against the Gonzaga switches.
He drove to the hoop on WSU’s first possession. That kick-started a 14-4 run that the gave Cougars a 44-28 lead they built on the rest of the way.