PORTLAND – At this early point of the season, the rebuilding job that is Washington State basketball is progressing in baby steps.
On Sunday night, most of the baby steps were forward. The Cougars shot well, decided well and defended well enough to stop the University of Portland 83-73 before a Chiles Center crowd pleasingly decorated with a generous coat of WSU crimson.
It wasn’t perfect – a half-hour after the game, Cougars coach Ken Bone was still growling about the start of the second half – but it was a road win. The Cougars are still adjusting to life without Klay Thompson and DeAngelo Casto, so any road win is a good one.
The next road win is going to be a lot tougher. The Cougars proceed to Anaheim, Calif., where on Thanksgiving day they will tip it off with Oklahoma and face New Mexico and Santa Clara after that.
“This is going to sound stupid,” Bone said, “is that we as a staff know who the best players are. We need to figure out how they can play together better.
“When we lost Abe Lodwick (broken foot, 4-6 weeks), he isn’t a great scorer or a great stat guy but (we need) the way he played. We’re trying to figure out how to plug the hole. It’s not easy.”
Fortunately on Sunday night, the Cougars got what they needed from three 6-foot-10 big men: Brock Motum, Charlie Enquist and sophomore D.J. Shelton, and from point guard Reggie Moore.
Moore got past Portland’s quick guards and fed his bigger pals to get the Cougars off to quick 10-4 lead, and Portland never did solve the situation.
For the game, the three tall ones combined for 29 points on 10 for 13 shooting. Moore got most of his assists feeding them.
It wasn’t by design. It just worked out that way.
“Coming into the game,” Bone said, “we thought we could score off penetration – drive on them and take what’s available.
“What was available most of the time was Brock, Charlie and D.J. Shelton.”
Faisal Aden also got the benefit of the situation. He hit half of his 14 shots and led both teams with 21 points.
The Cougars took the lead for good at 21-19 on Aden’s runner in the key and slowly built a 43-33 lead by the half. So far, so good.
Bone wasn’t at all pleased by what happened after that. The Pilots – a big rebuilding job themselves – slapped some trick defenses and double-teams on Moore and the rest of the WSU guards and created 11 second-half turnovers.
But the Cougars were smart enough not to reach for the panic button, kept the Pilots at bay by hitting 15 of 19 second-half free throws and cruised home.
Now it gets tougher for the Cougars.
“We need to value the ball,” Bone said. “Our passing and shot selection not only needs improvement, it needs quick improvement.
It had better.