PALO ALTO, Calif. – There were a bunch of bullies in Maples Pavilion on Friday afternoon and the Stanford players didn’t know how to deal with them.
Simply waiting turned out to be the winning method.
The Washington State Cougars were unable to sustain their dominant early play and fell to Stanford 71-56 in the Pac-12 opener for both teams.
WSU (6-7, 0-1 Pac-12) scored the first eight points of the game on the way to a 12-2 lead but was undone by horrible free-throw shooting.
Cougars coach Ernie Kent often refers to his team’s “mental.” By this he means its psychological preparedness to play the game at a high level despite the unforeseen hardships inherent to any competitive endeavor.
It has never been better under Kent than those first 7 minutes against Stanford (9-3, 1-0) and the success was contagious. Point guard Ny Redding scored the game’s first points with a deep two-pointer. Then, center Jordan Railey drilled one of his own.
Que Johnson made a layup and followed it with a 3-pointer, and Ike Iroegbu hit a free throw. The baskets were coming easy, but the reason WSU’s entire starting lineup had scored before Stanford made its second basket was because of the Cougars’ defense.
“One of the things we’ve been stressing a lot was coming out with a bang and we did that,” forward Josh Hawkinson said. “We came out strong and I think one of the big things that helped us out there was our defense, and defense is going to be a really big key to this season.”
The Cougars focused on Stanford’s three most dangerous players – guards Anthony Brown and Chasson Randle and forward Stefan Nastic – and were content to let the rest of the Cardinal players beat them if they could.
The plan was sound and the Cougars held Randle, the Pac-12’s third-leading scorer, to one point on 0-of-7 shooting in the first half. The Stanford trio combined to shoot just 4 of 17.
Hawkinson and Railey each blocked a shot in the game’s opening 2 minutes and WSU closed out hard on Randle and Brown’s jump shots.
“I thought … they came in with a good defensive game plan,” Stanford coach Johnny Dawkins said. “You could tell they had really prepared for us and what we do to try and take us out of thing we wanted to run.”
The plan began to unravel with around 5 minutes left in the first half when Stanford’s bench players began to provide the offensive punch the Cardinal needed. Marcus Allen and Rosco Allen combined to score 14 first-half points, more than Stanford’s entire starting lineup.
Stanford took a 27-24 halftime lead and needed just 5 minutes to build a double-digit second-half lead that it never relinquished. With the Cougars needing to focus on other players, Stanford’s stars got free. Randle, Brown and Nastic scored 17, 10 and eight second-half points, respectively.
The Cougars gave up a lot of points at the free-throw line, where they shot 24 of 39. That number was propped up by Hawkinson’s solid 11-of-15 day at the line, but that accounted for all 11 of his points because he made none of his seven field-goal attempts.
The Cougars spent too much time running half-court offense when their agenda is to push the ball. WSU started taking bad shots early to compensate.
“I talk about the mental slippage on our part,” Kent said. “If you make your free throws if you don’t quick-shot the ball, it’s a totally different game in the second half. So when you shot yourself out of rhythm and gave them control of the game, it was hard for us to get it back.
“Again, all that said and done, if you take care of the rebounding, knock down your free throws, it’s a whole different ball game.”
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