EUGENE – The University of Oregon was more than happy to arrange all the trappings of a warm welcome for Ernie Kent in his first return to Eugene as a rival coach.
The fans that saw him coach the Ducks to five NCAA tournaments between 1997 and 2010 gave him a warm ovation during his pregame introduction, and even UO’s Duck mascot was decked-out in a three-piece suit in apparent homage to the renowned fashion sense of WSU’s new coach.
But the Ducks couldn’t have been meaner hosts to Kent’s Cougars, blowing them out 95-72 in front of 7,121 fans at Matthew Knight Arena, the lavish 4-year-old building where Kent never got to coach and where the Cougars have never won.
The Ducks hit the Cougars with a knockout punch to open the game and the visitors never recovered.
“There wasn’t a lot to be encouraged about in this game because I didn’t think we had the grit and fight and toughness to come back at them,” Kent said.
“We had a really bad start and I think that killed us,” added Dexter Kernich-Drew. “We didn’t have much fight out there”
Oregon incrementally built an insurmountable lead scoring 12 unanswered points over the game’s first five minutes and turning it into a runaway 28-4 advantage over the next five.
With just five minutes left to play the first half the Cougars had only made four field goals, the same number of field goals the Ducks made while fouled.
“It became a track meet,” Kent said. “I felt like they were running a 100-yard dash and I thought we were running a mile and then those two just don’t match up together.”
Defensively, the Cougars tried a number of options to slow the hot-shooting Ducks and none were very effective. They tried man defense, zone defense and at time double-teamed Joseph Young, which simply opened up passing lanes for the talented guard.
It was no shock that Young, a strong candidate for Pac-12 player of the year, was the ringleader of the Ducks’ destructive offensive attack. Young nearly had a triple-double, scoring 29 points, collecting 10 rebounds and dishing out eight assists.
“He had a really good game. There were three or four plays in the first half and he really went and got the boards,” Ducks coach Dana Altman said. “That really helped our zone, got us going, got him going. He went and got a couple or three boards in that first half that were big time and he hadn’t been doing that.”
But Dwayne Benjamin was similarly and unexpectedly prolific for the Cougars, making 10 of 11 shots to set a new Matt Arena field-goal percentage record and score a career-high 25 points.
He made all of his three 3-point attempts and finished a pair of alley-oop lobs from Young with resounding dunks.
“They’re both really good players, attacking to the basket, drawing fouls,” said Josh Hawkinson, the primary defender on Benjamin. “I think that’s one thing specifically for me that I need to work on is lateral quickness and being able to guard guys who can drive me.”
Hawkinson did have 14 points and 11 rebounds to collect his 15th double-double this season, which ties for the third-most in school history.
Benjamin is not usually a starter for the Ducks (17-7, 7-4 Pac-12) but entered the rotation on Sunday because of a one-game suspension issued to the team’s leading rebounder, Jordan Bell, following an altercation with a parking officer.
Kernich-Drew provided some modicum of offense for the Cougars late in the first half, hitting back-to-back 3-pointers. DaVonte Lacy hit a third 3, pulling WSU’s score into the 20s before the half.
Kernich-Drew led the team with a season-high 18 points and was actually WSU’s most consistent threat to drive into the paint despite a reputation as a spot-up shooter.
WSU (10-13, 4-7) has dropped two games since an upset victory over Stanford last week. While Kent has frequently mentioned the importance confidence plays in his team’s performance, he said after the game that he is not concerned about the effect a sizable loss might have on his team’s psyche.
“The games come too fast,” Kent said. “There is still a lot of basketball for this team to play and it really is about where their growth is going to be finishing up the season and everything so they have more growth in them.”
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