PULLMAN – As the Washington State Cougars tried to sprint their way back into a game that was rapidly becoming unwinnable, Josh Hawkinson put just a bit too much air under his outlet pass to Ike Iroegbu, who was standing near midcourt.
Elijah Stewart stepped in front of Iroegbu to snag Hawkinson’s pass, took two dribbles as he strode to the rim and launched a two-handed dunk directly on Hawkinson, hanging onto the rim and swinging his legs back, wrapping them around the WSU forward’s neck.
It was that kind of night for the Cougars (8-5), who opened Pac-12 play with a 90-77 loss at home in front of 2,314 fans.
Stewart’s dunk punctuated his own personal 9-0 run. Teammate Julian Jacob did him one better on USC’s next basket, sneaking down the court and receiving an outlet pass, finishing with a double-clutch reverse dunk.
The Trojans (12-2) led by as many as 25, and raced out to a 54-37 halftime lead.
“I thought we started the game flat for whatever reason,” said coach Ernie Kent. “I’ll take responsibility for that, because we certainly talked enough about the energy in the game.”
While the team’s seven newcomers have added spice to the roster, WSU finally got some sizzle in the second half, using veteran role players such as Brett Boese and Junior Longrus. Boese hit a pair of 3-pointers to key a WSU run, and the Cougars outscored USC by 10 when Longrus was on the floor, better than any other WSU player.
Hawkinson was the only Cougar to score in double figures. His 19 points and 13 rebounds give him 10 double-doubles this season. His current streak of eight consecutive games with a double-double is one shy of the school record.
The five WSU newcomers who played at least 11 minutes in their first Pac-12 game combined to shoot 12 of 31, a figure that includes a 4-of-9 night from junior college transfer Renard Suggs.
“I’m sure it was an eye-opener for those new guys,” Kent said. “Just how good this conference is going to be. And you can talk about it all you want, but you have to go through it.”
The highlight fodder from Jacobs and Stewart were hardly the only emphatic dunks by the Trojans on Friday night, and afterward Kent acknowledged that the Cougars do not match up athletically with USC, although both teams are built to run in transition.
“We’re in the Pac-12, I mean I think that’s a perfect example of the league we play in,” Longrus said. “Every team has 10 guys that are crazy athletic, guys that can shoot, quick guards.”
Forward Nikola Jovanovic, who finished with 20 points and 12 rebounds, led USC in both categories. Jovanovic made 8 of 12 shots, doing most of his damage inside, but also stepping out to make his only 3-point attempt. Highly regarded point guard Jordan McLaughlin did not play against WSU last year after he had surgery for a shoulder injury, but was very effective against the Cougars Friday, making 8 of 12 shots to score 19 points.
Trojans coach Andy Enfield got the job after taking Florida Gulf Coast to the Sweet 16. The Eagles earned the nickname “Dunk City” for their high-flying style of play, and it appears that Enfield is building something similar at USC, which does not start any seniors.
The Trojans were young last year, and did not win a Pac-12 road game. Now, they’re 1-0 away from home in conference.
“We’re learning every day,” Enfield said. “Our goal is just trying to compete. The next step is to be able to win conference games at home and on the road. We didn’t win too many games at home, either.”
Kent and WSU players blamed both a lack of energy and a lack of focus, particularly early in the game, for the team’s inability to keep up with the Trojans.
They also acknowledged the perplexity of that condition, given the importance of a seemingly winnable home game in what is shaping up to be a meat-grinder year for the Pac-12.
“It’s just something that’s within our control,” Longrus said. “So it’s going to be up to us – the three captains (Hawkinson, Iroegbu and Longrus) – to kind of reiterate that it doesn’t get any easier, and you’ve got UCLA coming in here on Sunday and turnarounds are quick like that in the Pac-12 and we’re going to have to make an adjustment and come out with more energy and more focus next game.”
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