NEWARK, N.J. – Washington State traveled here over Thanksgiving weekend to learn something.
But what they learned Friday night they probably knew all along: Do the little things well and they can play with just about anyone.
“We understand that,” WSU coach Tony Bennett said after his Cougars handled previously undefeated Mississippi State 63-52 in the semifinals of the Legends Classic. “It’s part of who we are. We have to be real good in the little areas.”
Little areas like sharing the ball. Like blocking out. Like picking up a teammate. All of which the Cougars did at the Prudential Center, raising their non-conference record to 5-0 in the process.
The Cougars will face fourth-ranked Pitt, an 80-67 winner over Texas Tech, in tonight’s tournament final.
The Bulldogs (5-1) came in featuring Jarvis Varnado, their school record-holder in blocked shots and the reigning Southeastern Conference defensive player of the year, along with an offense that was hitting 50 percent of its shots.
So WSU took away the latter and took advantage of the former.
Early on the Cougars attacked the basket with the dribble, enticing the 6-foot-9 Varnado away from Aron Baynes. Then they passed the ball to their 6-10, 250-pound senior center.
Baynes, more often than not, flushed it, starting with the game’s first bucket off a Nik Koprivica assist.
Baynes had six first-half baskets. Five came off guards’ assists. He finished with 17 points on 8-of-10 shooting.
“Their pressure really took us out of our offense at times, so in those situations we have to use our dribble, try to get to the basket,” WSU point guard Taylor Rochestie said, “then we know we’ve got the nation’s best shot blocker back there, so that makes you think about throwing up the floater.
“And if he comes over to get you, we’ve got Baynes and (DeAngelo) Casto to dish off to.”
The drive-and-dish attack helped the Cougars build a 35-26 halftime advantage, a score only that close because the Bulldogs hit 5 of 8 3-pointers.
“(Varnado’s) a great defensive player, but he looked to leave a little too much and our guys did a great job getting me the ball down low,” Baynes said.
When the Bulldogs went cold from long range after halftime (1 of 6), WSU started to pull away, building the lead to as much as 17 (52-35) on Rochestie’s first bucket of the night, a drive-and-one with 10 minutes, 46 seconds left.
“When we got up 17, I thought we were playing good ball, then we started leaking a little oil,” Bennett said. “We lost some composure with some silly turnovers, poor decisions, breakdowns defensively. Those things really have to be tightened up or you’re going to have a hard time.”
Part of the problem was Rochestie was struggling. He finished 2 of 14 from the floor and turned the ball over four times, hounded by MSU freshman Dee Bost, who played despite a heavily taped ankle.
“That wasn’t characteristic of him,” Bennett said of Rochestie. “He still did some things that helped us down the stretch, but we need him to play well.”
He wasn’t, and Mississippi State, which shot just 32.6 percent with 20 turnovers against WSU’s man-to-man, clawed back, cutting the lead to eight (52-44). That’s when the Cougars’ depth showed.
“That’s going to be our strength this year,” said Koprivica, who finished with seven points, six rebounds and three assists. “Last year we were putting everything on Kyle (Weaver) and Derrick (Low). And this year, yes we do have Taylor and Baynes, but even if they don’t play great games, we have a lot of guys who can contribute.”
One of them is Daven Harmeling, who, despite a poor shooting night (1 of 4), still made one of the bigger plays of the game.
“Offensively, I really didn’t have it going tonight,” Harmeling said. “If I’m not making my shots, I’ve got to be holding my block outs. … Those are the little things I have to do.”
With 5:27 left, Kodi Augustus, one of three Bulldogs to score 10 points, tried to cut the lead to six with a drive, but missed under pressure. Harmeling stepped, blocked him off and drew a rebounding foul. He hit both free throws and, though MSU would get within six points two minutes later, by then it was too late.
A win tonight and the Cougars might sneak into the rankings.
Not that Bennett cares about that.
“It’s early,” he said. “We’re still learning so much about our ball club.”
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