PULLMAN – Breaking habits is always hard, and so winning in front of a crowd in Beasley Coliseum for the first time since Jan. 3 was likely to take a little extra exertion, even in an exhibition game.
And the Cougars certainly did not look ready for the regular season for most of the game against their NAIA opponent. But WSU eventually pulled away from Carroll College and won 78-70, breaking a pattern of losing games played in the Western Hemisphere that has lasted for 10 months.
On the one hand, Carroll is picked to win the Frontier Conference and returns the bulk of its 2015 squad that made the NAIA quarterfinals. But, the Saints played Sunday’s game without honorable mention All-American forward Ryan Imhoff.
Exhibition games can be dicey affairs, though, evidenced by perennial power Arizona beating Chico State by the same score earlier Sunday. The Cougars had a profound lack of energy in the early minutes, and were outscored 35-26 in the first half.
“We came out flat,” forward Derrien King said. “I wouldn’t necessarily say ‘not ready to play,’ but we weren’t focused, we weren’t talking on defense.”
WSU outscored the Saints 25-17 in the first 10 minutes of the second half and, despite trailing by 13 early in the second half, with 10 minutes to play the Cougars trailed by just one point.
By the game’s final 10 minutes, the Cougars figured it out. The defensive rotations that had been so late in the first half began to materialize – Iroegbu drew two charges in the game – and the Cougars realized that Jeff Pollard could get a layup under the basket whenever they wished him to.
The freshman forward made three field goals in his first seven minutes on the court. The Saints made 46.2 percent of their 3-point attempts in the first half, and just 25 percent in the second.
“At halftime, we just talked about how we had no energy,” freshman point guard Malachi Flynn said. “In the second half, we just came out talking more on defense, and that just led to better rotation all around.”
But ultimately, WSU won because it shot a blistering percentage from beyond the arc in the second half. They made seven of their first eight 3-point attempts, the majority of which came from the left baseline corner. This came after the Cougars made just 1 of 7 3-point attempts in the first half.
“To shoot the ball the way we shot it, score 52 points in the second half and shoot 62 percent from the field, 100 percent from the free-throw line – going 18 for 18 in the game – we’ve shot the ball like that through the summer and so far this fall,” coach Ernie Kent said.
While the game was an exhibition, it provided a reasonable glimpse of how the team will appear this year. Josh Hawkinson got his typical double-double (15 points, 13 rebounds) and led the team in minutes with 34. Flynn was second with 33 minutes played – he had 12 points and three assists in his debut.
Jamar Ergas, Milan Acquaah (injury), KJ Langston and Arinze Chidom did not play. Kent said after the game that he will redshirt two or three players, and will make that decision before the season begins for real on Friday at home against Montana State at 4 p.m.