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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

A year later, it’s WSU crushing UTEP

PULLMAN – Ernie Kent’s Washington State tenure began with a loss to UTEP in which the physical Miners beat up the Cougars offense, holding three starters scoreless.

That “welcome back to coaching” game served as an example to Kent of how far his fledgling program had to go. And Sunday’s 84-68 win over UTEP in the rematch was a measuring stick showing how far the Cougars have come, particularly on offense.

“It’s amazing to me that in a year, we’re the big, physical basketball team with depth and athleticism and a team that can really score,” said WSU coach Ernie Kent.

WSU’s win was its first in a four-game series with UTEP (6-3). The teams will meet once more, at the Don Haskins Center in El Paso, next season.

WSU (6-2) attacked the interior of the UTEP defense in order to find easy looks from the outside against collapsing defenders. The result was the team’s best outside shooting night of the season, with 8 of 16 3-point attempts hitting the mark.

The shooting exhibition opened up the middle for post players Josh Hawkinson and Conor Clifford, who scored 17 and 15 points, respectively. Clifford made all five of his field-goal attempts, while Hawkinson added 14 rebounds to pick up his fifth double-double of the season. WSU made 55.3 percent of its shot attempts, also a season-high.

“We got beat by a better team tonight,” UTEP coach Tim Floyd said. “They thoroughly dominated us with their two big guys inside.”

Another playmaker emerged for WSU in the form of Derrien King, a 6-foot-6 small forward who had played just 12 minutes all season entering Sunday’s game. King made his first three 3-point attempts against the Miners, and showed the ability to drive to the basket from the perimeter in the second half, drawing a shooting foul at the rim and making a free throw to finish with 10 points in 19 minutes.

King suffered an ankle injury in the offseason that prevented him from playing basketball for around three months, according to Kent. That time off stunted his development, but he now appears ready to contribute to WSU’s depth.

“All the coaches except Kent kind of gave me a little insight and stuff that I was going to get some minutes and to be ready,” King said.

King’s length also gives the Cougars some interesting defensive options. WSU spent much of the second half in a 2-3 zone, and King flashed athleticism that allowed him to challenge shooters and return to the baseline.

Kent said the Cougars will play more zone defense going forward.

“What Derrien does, his length allows you to match up better with that big three-man that’s throughout this conference and really throughout the country,” Kent said. “Everyone seems to have that guy over there. Definitely I thought he could’ve made a big difference at Idaho game with that kind of length out at the perimeter. And even in the Gonzaga game, he probably could’ve made a difference with that kind of length.”

That the Cougars did not win by more – and really, they should have given their defense holding the Miners to just 36.5 percent shooting – is partially attributable to their recurring rebounding problem.

UTEP is not a particularly good rebounding team – their offensive rebounding percentage of 21.8 ranks No. 330 among Division-I teams – yet the Miners collected 16 offensive rebounds.

Those 16 extra shots only turned into eight points – just three more second-chance points than WSU’s five – but extracted a toll from the Cougars in the form of increased energy spent playing defense. And they created a trend out of WSU’s principal issue in its loss to Idaho on Wednesday, when the Cougars were outrebounded 14-1 on the offensive glass.