PULLMAN – With their best player sitting on the bench, the Washington State Cougars found another post player to lead them in the interior during an easy 74-57 win over visiting Cal-State Los Angeles.
Junior college transfer Conor Clifford was perhaps the most highly anticipated of WSU’s seven newcomers heading into the 2015-16 season, but a knee injury kept him out of the Cougars’ preseason games and limited him in the first two nonconference games played by WSU (3-0).
On Tuesday night, with star forward Josh Hawkinson held out because of a groin injury, Clifford showed why coach Ernie Kent was so excited about signing the 7-foot center.
“You see Conor and how big he is, when he gets into the post and when he seals his man, you’ve just got to give him the ball because that’s basically an automatic two points,” said starting combo guard Ike Iroegbu.
Clifford paced the WSU offense with 18 points in 21 minutes and proved to be a highly-skilled big man, showing a variety of post moves and making 7-of-9 shots, and all four of his free throw attempts. He paved the way for a dominant inside effort from the Cougars, who scored 38 points in the paint and 40 points off the bench.
“It was getting Conor an opportunity to really play and get on his game,” Kent said. “And I’m so pleased for him that he’s worked so hard to get his weight down, to get his conditioning, to get his body stronger and I thought he had a phenomenal game.”
Clifford’s effort comes on the heels of a similar breakout performance by Valentine Izundu, the team’s other center, in last Saturday’s 85-67 win over Idaho State. Like Clifford, Izundu is a first-year junior for the Cougars, having sat out last season after transferring from Houston.
Izundu blocked six shots in that game and added three more on Tuesday, despite playing just 16 minutes. Iroegbu led the team with seven rebounds, and he Que Johnson and Renard Suggs joined Clifford in double figures. Johnson scored 15 points to pace the backcourt, while Iroegbu and Suggs added 10 apiece.
The Cougars created their own energy in front of a sparse crowd of 1,280 that included a student section ravaged by Thanksgiving break. The Cougars led by as much as 27 before seeing their lead slip late when more backups played.
Of course, CSULA (0-5) did not exactly provide the stiffest competition the Cougars will face in what is, besides next week’s game against Gonzaga and December’s Diamondhead Classic, a pretty cushy nonconference schedule.
“We have to play these games to raise money for our program and our kids,” said Golden Eagles coach Dieter Horton. “That’ the bottom line. Also, I wanted to create some great experiences for our guys. Most of these kids would not ever get a chance to play a UCLA or North Carolina State. They’ll remember this game 30 years from now.”