SEATTLE – It was a defeat that hung in their throat.
Sure, Gonzaga is the fourth-ranked team in the nation, but the way they played in Wednesday’s home rout didn’t sit well with the Washington State Cougars.
“We had to get back to Washington State basketball,” is how senior Taylor Rochestie put it.
To a large degree they did Saturday night in the fourth Cougar Hardwood Classic, shooting down Montana State 70-51 before a sparse crowd of 7,848 in Key Arena.
The win snapped Washington State’s short two-game losing streak – a first in non-conference play during Tony Bennett’s head-coaching tenure – and improved the Cougars’ record to 7-3.
But just how it was the way they lost against GU that mattered, Bennett felt the way they won against MSU was paramount – especially on the offensive end.
“Offensive juggernaut tonight,” Bennett said, tongue-in-cheek, citing the Cougars’ 58.3 percent shooting (28 of 48), a season high.
“It was better, it was,” he continued. “We were more patient, had better shot selections. Yes, it was a different opponent, but we just tried to take what the offense gave us. Instead of maybe settling for a decent shot, we tried to get a real good shot.”
In Bennett’s estimation it wasn’t perfect. But it was a marked improvement over the too-quick pace against GU that resulted in WSU missing 35 shots and shooting 32.7 percent.
“Sometimes when you let the ball swing a time or two more (and) get a post touch,” Bennett said, “the defense gets a little bit lagging behind and you get those rhythm looks.”
The emphasis was obvious on the first possession.
The ball went into Aron Baynes – the 6-foot-10 senior center finished with nine points and six rebounds – back out to Rochestie and around the horn. All five Cougars touched the ball.
Freshman Klay Thompson was the last and his uncontested 3 from the corner hit nothing but … rim. It was one of only two shots he missed en route to a team-high 14 points.
Still, the precedent was set.
“It comes down to breaking a team down,” said Rochestie, who had termed WSU’s play against GU as “selfish.”
“Whether we think we’re getting good shots or not, that’s not our style.”
Against the 4-4 Bobcats, moving the ball quickly was WSU style. The Cougars finished with 19 assists – they had five against GU – including six by Rochestie (along with 11 points on 4-of-7 shooting) and four from Nik Koprivica.
And they shot well, with Daven Harmeling (5 of 8 from the floor, 3 of 4 beyond the arc for 13 points) setting the pace early with two quick 3s.
“I don’t want to say we were selfish before,” Koprivica said, “I just want to say we wanted to get extra passes. I was just passing when I saw guys open.”
Koprivica’s best pass came with 7 minutes, 44 seconds left, as he drove and, against a double team, somehow found DeAngelo Casto for a dunk, part of eight points for the freshman, perfect on four shots.
“That was a good one,” a laughing Koprivica said of his feed.
The throwdown gave WSU a 58-38 lead and, when Caleb Forrest – 10 points on 5-of-6 shooting – finished a fast break 20 seconds later, the benches started to clear.
Thanks to the WSU offense. Now, the defense, that was another story.
“In the second half, the ball got into the lane way too much,” Bennett said.
“At the rim, in the lane, they took it at us. … It’s pretty obvious we’re still a work in progress.”
The Bobcats, who shot a miserable 26.1 percent in the first half, attacked with the dribble early in the second.
Erik Rush, despite being 1 of 4 from the field, finished with 12 points as he was fouled six times going to the basket and made 10 free throws.
Guard Danny Piepoli added four 3-pointers and 14 points, but that was the extent of MSU’s attack. It wasn’t enough, what with WSU’s offensive production and the Cougars’ 36-20 edge on the glass.
“Coach talked this week about how we had to play to have success,” Rochestie said. “We haven’t been playing that way. … He got the upperclassmen together, sat us down just told us we need to get back to playing our style of basketball.
“We’ve been here a couple years, we know what works.”
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