After getting smoked Thursday night by Oregon in their Pac-12 opener, the Washington State Cougars knew they needed to change a few things against Oregon State on Saturday afternoon.
Well, actually, a lot of things.
The most important of which was the outcome.
They did that, holding off the Beavers 81-76 before 8,282 New Year’s Eve fans at the Spokane Arena.
“If we start off on the wrong foot it could potentially be a slippery slope downwards,” said junior forward Brock Motum, who led the Cougars in scoring (26 points) and rebounds (eight).
“It was important we got the win. We came off a pretty bad loss,” Motum added, alluding to Thursday’s 95-80 drubbing.
But this one, which the Cougars led for the final 37 minutes, had the potential to be even more devastating.
That’s because, after trailing by as many as 11 points, the final time with 5:17 left, the Beavers rallied behind their smallest player, 5-foot-9 guard Ahmad Starks.
Starks, who the Cougars targeted on the defensive end with DaVonté Lacy rising over him often for most of his 18 points, started bombing away with a bit more than 5 minutes left.
A 25-footer was followed by another, just as far. The WSU lead was down to 65-60. A jumper from 15 a couple of minutes later drew OSU to within 70-66. And his last 3-pointer, from at least 25 feet with 51 seconds remaining, cut the lead to 77-74.
“He hit some tough shots with a hand in his face, for the most part,” WSU coach Ken Bone said.
And more than just in his face.
“On that last one, on his follow through, he hit my hand,” said Lacy, who was not whistled.
But two was as close as the Beavers (10-4, 0-2 in Pac-12 play) would get. Not that they didn’t have their chances.
Marcus Capers, the senior guard who OSU coach Craig Robinson kept instructing the Beavers to foul, made six of eight free throws in the final two minutes. But one of his misses, and another by Lacy, were sandwiched around two makes from OSU’s Jared Cunningham, who had 10 of his team-high 21 from the line.
Lacy’s miss gave Oregon State the ball with 30 seconds left trailing 79-76.
Ten second later Starks cast off from 28 feet. It missed, but Eric Moreland chased down the last of his 10 rebounds, kicking the ball out to Cunningham open at the 3-point line.
The junior rose up and fired.
“I was thinking, honestly, ‘I kind of hope he makes it so we can hit the game-winning shot,’ ” Moore said afterward, laughing.
He was wrong, one of the few mistakes he made on an eight-point, nine-assist, one-turnover day.
Cunningham missed, the Cougars corralled this rebound and Capers finished the Beavers off with two free throws.
“I’m surprised he missed that because he’s a great shooter,” Bone said of Cunningham’s possible game-tying attempt. “We just lucked out in the sense he missed that shot and we were able to come up with it.”
“Their guys made plays when they had to make them, we weren’t able to make plays when we needed to when the game got close,” said OSU coach Craig Robinson. “We needed to come up with some loose balls and we didn’t; when we needed to make a couple of shots, we didn’t.”
Especially early, when WSU (9-5, 1-1) showed the Beavers a 2-3 matchup zone, not the Cougars’ preferred defense. But Oregon had gashed WSU’s man at a nearly 70-percent clip and Bone knew he had to change something.
“I’m not sure how confident we were in our man defense after Thursday,” he said, adding the zone “wasn’t great but it was fairly effective.”
So was a different attitude.
Before the Oregon game, the Cougars were jumping around in the Arena hallway. But that’s where they seemed to leave their bounce. Saturday, their pregame huddle was quiet, businesslike.
“That was the kind of approach I took to practice on Friday,” Moore said, “a more businesslike mentality.”
And they played as if their business depended on distribution.
“Thought we did a good job sharing the ball,” Bone said. “We definitely turned it over a few times, but you’re going to get that when you are asking guys to move it, move it, move it.”
That movement may have resulted in 16 turnovers – still three less than OSU’s opponents average – but it also resulted in open looks and 53.8 percent shooting, including half of 12 attempts from beyond the arc.
“They shot the ball well,” Robinson said. They shot 50 percent from 3s, that’s really good. They made their foul shots, they made important hustle plays that needed to be made.
“They played a terrific game.”
And that was the biggest difference from two nights before.