PULLMAN – For about three quarters of Saturday’s game, the Washington State Cougars were just faulty enough on the offensive end of the floor that the visiting IUPUI Jaguars probably felt if they could get a few shots to fall, they might salvage at least one positive result during a four-day tour of the Inland Northwest.
The Jaguars knew the back end of the road trip wouldn’t be a gimme – IUPUI heads to No. 12 Gonzaga for a supper-time tipoff on Monday – and the front end was perhaps more of a challenge than they expected, given the Cougars were in the midst of a three-game slump and giving up an average of 83 points in the month of December.
But WSU avoided a fourth hiccup and the Cougars matched their best defensive outing of the season, stymieing IUPUI from start to finish in a comfortable 72-59 win at Beasley Coliseum.
On defense, it was the Cougars’ best game since conceding 59 points to Seattle U. The Redhawks shot 30 percent from the field in the second game of the year – a 16-point loss. Those were numbers the Jaguars could relate to on Saturday. They hit on 24-of-71 shots (33 percent) and had just one player finish in double figures.
And IUPUI had to overachieve to merely reach 30 points by the halftime break. The visitors scored just two points through the game’s first 5:53.
“I think we just focused in this week on defense mainly,” senior Drick Bernstine said. “We know that in order for our offense to really thrive, we have to play defense because we’re a transition team and it’s hard to grab the ball out of the net after a scored basket and push the ball as fast as you can off a missed shot.”
The Cougars fumbled the ball enough through the first 23 minutes to keep the Jaguars in a two-possession game. Then the hosts established a double-digit lead on a pair of Malachi Flynn free throws and didn’t trail for the remaining 16:33.
On a 20-assist day, WSU’s fastbreak was spearheaded by Bernstine, the 6-8, 235-pound grad transfer who can operate as a point-forward for Ernie Kent’s team when the Cougars are defending at a high level.
“I tweaked my offense because I’m kind of tired of seeing us play so slow,” the WSU coach said. “And I’ve always wanted to play as fast as my teams have played in the past. And the one guy that gets us that way is Drick. He’s the fastest guy with the ball. The plays he made on the floor that he’s made in practice gets everybody involved because he’s big, he’s strong. That ball zips down the floor on a rope.”
Bernstine wasn’t the top scorer for the Cougars, but he certainly had the largest footprint on the game and still managed to stuff the stat sheet, scoring nine points, grabbing 13 rebounds and dishing out five assists. The North Dakota transfer chipped in three of WSU’s season-high eight blocked shots and he accounted for two of the six steals.
“When I’m bringing the ball down and these guys are flying down the side and getting shots,” Bernstine said, “I think that’s when we play the best. I think that’s what coach harped on all week.
“The team, we just flowed a lot better today.”
The fluid ball movement led to four Cougars finishing in double figures for the third time this season – and Bernstine was nearly the fifth.
“I probably should’ve let him get the double-double,” Kent quipped.
Flynn led the Cougars with 17 points, Viont’e Daniels had 15 on 6-of-7 shooting, Jeff Pollard had 12 and Robert Franks posted 10.
Scoring balance is something the Jaguars might need to find before they head to Spokane for Monday’s meeting with the Zags. Or they could just find a way to clone Ron Patterson. The IUPUI guard was the only player in double digits, scoring a game-high 19 points primarily on 5-of-13 shooting from beyond the arc.
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