SEATTLE – Forget the name on the front of their jerseys, their lack of TV appearances, their conference affiliation.
The Buffalo Bulls might not have been the kind of marquee opponent Washington State desires to bring here for its annual Cougar Hardwood Classic game at KeyArena.
But this Mid-American Conference team was more than enough competition in WSU’s grinder of a 65-54 victory Friday night before 7,269 at the Key.
Pretty, it was not. Senior forward Brock Motum said as much to coach Ken Bone as the two walked off the court and to the locker room.
“Coach, that was ugly,” was how Bone summarized Motum’s half of that conversation.
The Cougars (8-4) got relatively little from Motum, who went nearly 26 minutes without a field goal at one point but still managed to chip in 15 points on 6-of-15 shooting. The operative word there is “relatively.” Motum had scored 20 or more points in WSU’s previous five games.
“There’s going to be nights where shots don’t fall or you don’t get calls,” Motum said. “You’ve just got to help your team in other ways and I just tried to do anything I could to help other guys get open or play tough ‘D.’ ”
The shooting – in the first half, at least – was worthy of the bigger stage. Each team attempted 11 3-pointers in the first half, and each team made seven.
Too many of Buffalo’s share were uncontested, particularly the three open looks downed by guard Tony Watson, two of those coming after WSU switched to a zone defense.
Bone stressed defensive energy to his players at halftime. He noted the Cougars were called for only three fouls, an indication that they weren’t playing hard enough. So he started reserve wing Will DiIorio – WSU’s go-to hustle guy – in the second half in an attempt to spark some energy.
“I thought the energy we came out with, the toughness, the grit was what made the difference in the game,” Bone said. “We did a better job contesting shots, and we were there when they came off on-ball and off-ball screens.”
The Bulls’ 56-percent clip from the field in the first half helped them overcome a quick start by the Cougars, who responded to a 7-0 deficit by reeling off a 23-5 run. DaVonte Lacy scored eight of his 19 points in the first four minutes, and made four 3-pointers in the first half.
And then, poof. The Bulls finished 9 of 21 from beyond the 3-point arc, WSU 10 of 20.
“In the first half it was upbeat, up-tempo,” said Lacy, who tied a career high by making five 3-pointers. “We knew going into the second half we had to play defense to win the game, because defense wins championships and you can’t win games if you don’t play defense.”
Buffalo’s offensive implosion – and WSU’s better defensive effort – was thorough enough to offset any of the Cougars’ offensive shortcomings, such as their 13-of-24 effort from the free-throw line. The Bulls (4-8), playing without starting point guard Jarod Oldham, went cold from the field and didn’t score for more than four minutes as WSU built its lead from 52-50 to 61-50 with 1:45 to play.
That drought was a microcosm of the second half for the Bulls. They scored just 17 points after leading 37-35 at halftime, and shot a feeble 20.7 percent (6 of 29) from the field in that time.
Dexter Kernich-Drew made a transition 3-pointer to give WSU a 56-50 lead with 4:54 to go, the first time either team led by more than three points in the second half. Royce Woolridge followed with a flip shot and a pair of free throws to add sufficient separation.
WSU shut down Buffalo’s leading scorer, Javon McCrea, who played only 18 minutes because of early foul trouble and scored just two points.
The slugfest style of Friday’s win can’t hurt WSU as it prepares for Pac-12 play.
“It’s going to be physical. You’ve got to work for everything,” Lacy said. “They’re not going to give you anything.”
Probably not. The MAC team didn’t, either.