PULLMAN – So this is is how it is going to be this year.
The improbable and the indomitable careened toward a dramatic finish as Washington State men’s basketball team clawed its way back from a deficit that reached 22 points in the first half to overtake Texas Southern and fend off the Tigers in overtime for an 86-84 season-opening victory.
“This game is probably a microcosm of what our season’s going to be,” acknowledged WSU coach Ernie Kent – a young team tested by adversity and overcoming it.
“This shows a lot about our team,” guard Malachi Flynn said. He scored 19 points for the Cougars, including a 3-pointer in overtime that game WSU a lead it was able to defend the rest of the way.
Robert Franks led WSU with 25 points and 11 rebounds. His value to the Cougars was never more evident then during a flurry of plays in the second half when he drained a 3-pointer, went up hard in the lane and missed but got the offensive rebound, drew a foul and hit a pair of free throws, grabbed another offensive board, was fouled, and hit a pair at the line again. That series moved WSU from being down 60-40 to 60-47 and took the Cougars’ intensity to another level.
“The biggest thing is my teammates found me in spots I like, and I was crashing the glass hard, especially the offensive boards,” Franks said.
Kent seized on Franks’ contribution. “I had to remind my point guards he made that many in a row and to quit shooting and get him the ball.”
Franks fouled out with less than a minute to play in regulation. But the Cougars were able to bring it home in overtime without him.
In the second half, the Cougars settled on a 1-3-1 defense that disrupted the Tigers’ offensive rhythm and allowed WSU to begin piling up defensive stops. It was the key to the comeback, Kent said. It allowed the Cougars to redeem what had begun as a tepid opening-game effort.
WSU found itself in a terrible hole early. Texas Southern went on a 16-0 run to extend its lead to 31-9 before Flynn finally stopped the slide with a pair of free throws with 6:30 to go before the break.
The Cougars shot an abysmal 8 of 33 in the first half – 24.2 percent – including only 4 of 21 3-pointers, while Texas Southern was 15 for 24 for 62.5 percent, hitting 7 of 12 from behind the arc.
The Tigers and Cougars mirrored each other in style, getting up and down the floor quickly, treating the lane and any set plays as afterthoughts. Unfortunately for WSU, the Tigers were better at it.
But Kent said his young team matured in the second half. WSU improved to hit 13 of 35 shots in the second half, 37.1 percent, and 4 of 8 in overtime as the Cougars reeled in the Tigers.
“That’s hard to do,” Kent said of a team with so many players playing in their first game.
Demontrae Jefferson led Texas Southern with 22 points apiece. Kevin Scott added 19.