PULLMAN – There is one opponent that seems to wear down college basketball players with a mind-numbing consistency.
“I’ve been doing this for a few years now and I sincerely cannot remember feeling good coaching a game right after finals,” Washington State coach Ken Bone said Sunday evening.
And that was after his Cougars had won their fifth consecutive nonconference game, a seemingly easy 66-42 decision over Western Oregon before a student-deprived crowd of 2,318 at Beasley Coliseum.
But the Division II Wolves, members of the Great Northwest Athletic Conference who came in on a nine-game winning streak, gave Washington State a test for the first 20 minutes.
When the teams headed to the locker room at half, WSU (7-4) led just 28-25 and had more turnovers against WOU’s matchup zone (10) than baskets (nine). Even though finals ended Friday, the Cougars knew that math wouldn’t earn a passing grade.
“We didn’t play with the energy we needed to,” Bone said, “but the turnovers were very disappointing. I forget exactly how many we had at halftime, but it was too many.”
The Cougars came in averaging 15 a game and that carelessness was intensified early by the introduction of three players who hadn’t played much during their recent win streak.
With the return of Abe Lodwick, out all season with a broken foot, Mike Ladd, out five games with a sprained thumb, and Faisal Aden, out three with a concussion, the Cougars’ rotations changed, with the trio combining for 26 first-half minutes.
“It’s always a new challenge when you’re bringing a guy back into the mix, but when you’re bringing in three guys back in, it can disrupt the continuity of what’s been going on,” Bone said.
Western Oregon (9-2) also had a hand in the disruption, with the Wolves’ three-, four- and sometimes five-guard sets pressuring WSU into failed decisions.
All that changed at halftime.
The Cougars began operating their offense closer to the rim – they had 11 attempts within a foot in the second half – and the shots began to fall.
With Marcus Capers leading the way with nine points – the first time the senior has led WSU in scoring – on four dunks and a free throw, and 6-foot-10 Charlie Enquist making all three of his attempts, WSU converted half its field goal attempts, including 13 of 23 after halftime. The Cougars also had just five turnovers.
“The second half we were more poised,” Capers said. “We had seen (the WOU zone), so we moved the ball and attacked more.”
Post D.J. Shelton exemplified the attack philosophy late, switching out and blocking a 3-pointer, gathering in the loose ball and going coast-to-coast, though the finish wasn’t pretty.
“It looked to me like he lost his balance, threw it up and it went through the hoop,” Bone said of Shelton’s last of seven points.
Very little of what Western Oregon threw up in the second half went through the hoop, as the Wolves, who won in the Bay Area on Saturday afternoon and didn’t arrive in Pullman until noon Sunday, missed 19 of 23 second-half shot attempts.
“I think they just ran out of gas,” Bone said.
Western Oregon was still within nine with nearly 13 minutes left before the tank ran dry. A 15-2 run – including Lodwick’s first bucket of the year, a 24-footer from the top – ensured the Cougars could coast to the finish line.
WOU leading scorer Blair Wheadon was just 1 for 10 from the floor, though he got to the line enough to finish with nine points. Forward Kolton Nelson, who came in averaging 12.4, was held to just a lone free throw and, at 6-8, had trouble against the WSU bigs – on both ends.
“Our interior passing has been very good, especially the last two, three weeks,” said Bone, noting post Brock Motum’s career-high five assists.
So has the defense, something Capers thinks is helped by WSU’s depth.
“We look at it like rounds, like a boxing match,” he said. “I can go the first four minutes, then sub out.”
The Cougars played 10 players eight or more minutes – no one more than Capers’ 24 – and all 10 scored. And all had a hand in holding the Wolves to 26 percent shooting, the third time in five games WSU’s opponents have shot that poorly.
“It has been a topic of discussion most every day in practice, trying to get as good as we can defensively,” Bone said. “We want to get it to where we can rotate a number of guys and keep our energy level up.”
With the win, the Cougars say goodbye to Beasley until Jan. 19, when Stanford will visit in WSU’s sixth Pac-12 game. Between now and New Year’s Day, Washington State will play in Seattle and twice in Spokane. Then it’s off for three conference road games.
“When you’re in Pullman during winter break, it’s a ghost town,” said Lodwick, who thanked the few fans who showed up Sunday. “There’s no one here.”