PULLMAN – What might have been a jubilant assertion that this year would be different for the Washington State basketball team was instead a nervous feeling in the pit of the stomach.
But the Cougars held off Montana State long enough to win their season opener 69-65 and return to the win column in a game that counts for the first time since Jan. 3. Most important, they have found another player who can score some buckets.
Junior guard Derrien King led the Cougars with 22 points. WSU struggled to shoot well from outside, making just 5 of 14 3-point attempts, but King went 3 of 6. He also made 7 of 9 free throw attempts, wriggling his 6-foot-6 frame into congestion and forcing the Bobcats to foul him.
“Coach told us that we didn’t start last game aggressive. We didn’t get aggressive until the second half,” King said. “He told us that we needed to get out and attack and play our game early, so that’s what I tried to do.”
Finding a reliable scoring option besides Ike Iroegbu and Josh Hawkinson was a failed mission for the Cougars during their nine-win 2015-16 season. That King, whose size allows him to play inside or outside depending on the situation, showed promise of being such a player could make the Cougars much more dynamic on offense.
The win was also the first game of consequence for freshman Malachi Flynn, who began drawing lofty praise from coach Ernie Kent as soon as he signed with the Cougars. Flynn played well in the debut, scoring 10 points on just four shorts, while also collecting nine rebounds.
MSU is probably not a big challenge – with the notable exception of Tyler Hall – so the win comes with some pockmarks.
Turnovers were the biggest blemish. WSU gave the ball away 17 times, and Flynn did so five times in his first game. MSU only turned the ball over eight times, but the Cougars outscored the Bobcats on points off turnovers 8-7.
The Cougars played a close-door scrimmage against Utah State and an exhibition game against Carroll College, and did not play at their preferred pace. They attributed the turnovers to their emphasis on playing faster.
“This last two or three really good practices we’ve had, we cranked up the speed,” Kent said. “I knew we were going to have some turnovers. Seventeen turnovers is not bad, but it’s when you have the turnovers that’s bad because in a game that fast, I felt like between 10 missed free throws and 17 turnovers we left 20 points on the floor.”
The Big Sky coaches projected the Bobcats to finish sixth in the 12-team conference. The Bobcats shot 29.3 percent from the field, in part because the Cougars played to Kent’s satisfaction on defense but also because MSU had but two players who could shoot the ball with any accuracy.
Those were Hall, who made 7 of 15 3-point attempts and led all scorers with 32 points, and Sarp Gobeloglu, who scored 12 points and shot 3 of 5 from behind the arc.
Once WSU found its pace and rhythm, the Cougars seemed to be in small danger of losing.
WSU led by 31-21 at the half and had a 19-point lead with 12:53 left. The Bobcats kept chipping away, however, and a three-point play by Hall with 6:31 left got WSU’s lead back down to 10.
“They were making some tough shots,” Flynn said. “I just told the team to stay poised and not take bad shots on the other end – coach Kent talks about that a lot – and I think we did a good job of that.”
Quinton Everett made his only 3-pointer in five tries to cut WSU’s lead to 66-63 with 31 seconds left in the game. WSU made just 3 of 6 free-throw attempts in the waning seconds, but Hall pulled up just a couple of steps after crossing the halfcourt line and missed a 3-point attempt with 23 seconds left.
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