PULLMAN – Ernie Kent has stressed the importance of playing a basketball game against Idaho every season as long as he holds his job as Washington State, but some might contend the coach hasn’t placed as much emphasis in winning the Battle of the Palouse, judging by his win-loss record in a series the Pullmanites have historically dominated.
Yes, Kent and WSU had lost their grip on the oldest college basketball rivalry west of the Mississippi River, losing three of the last four to the Vandals, including a 91-64 stinker in Moscow last season. But nobody could question the home team’s effort, purpose or desire Wednesday night as the Cougars raced past the Vandals for a 90-70 win at Beasley Coliseum in front of an announced 2,748 fans.
Charged by a 22-point outing from their top scorer, Robert Franks, and 20 more from C.J. Elleby, a freshman who continues to look more comfortable in a crimson jersey, WSU improved to 5-2 on the season and increased its overall series lead on Idaho to 71-49.
A newbie to the rivalry game, Elleby apparently conducted some research from his dorm room this week because he came into the Battle of the Palouse fairly well-versed in its history and eager to steal back bragging rights.
“Coach has been harping on it all week – we’ve got to get these guys back, they beat us last year,” Elleby said. “They’ve won three out of the last four years, so going into this game he brought a lot of intensity, because that’s what they’ve been giving us all week. They’ve been ramping everything up because they know how important this game was.”
Elleby, who’s been a steady presence on the Cougars’ score sheet the last three games with 20 points, 18 points and 23 points, also had eight rebounds, two assists and one blocked shot. Junior point guard Ahmed Ali scored 14 points for WSU and senior guard Viont’e Daniels had a balanced night with six points, six rebounds and nine assists.
The fluidity that the Cougars showed moving the ball around had to be a sight for sore eyes. In a loss at New Mexico State on Saturday, they turned it over 19 times and assisted on only four baskets. WSU flipped those numbers against Idaho, with 17 assists and four turnovers.
“Last game, we didn’t pass the ball, share the ball like we normally do,” Daniels said. “That was a big emphasis for this game, as well. … I think you got to see that in transition and even in the half court, which is why we had so many open looks.”
Unlike the Cougars, the Vandals (3-5) couldn’t count on the usual suspects – at least not all of them.
Trevon Allen, a Clarkston High product from Lapwai, Idaho, pushed through foul trouble to score 17 points for Idaho. But for the visitors to have a chance, they would’ve needed more production from sharp-shooting freshman Cameron Tyson. The Bothell, Washington, native came into the game as one of the country’s most accurate 3-point shooters, hitting 57 percent, but Tyson was held to three points on 1-of-9 shooting from the field and was 1 of 5 from the perimeter.
“Tyson can really score and I thought our energy, again, with the crowd – and Viont’e Daniels did a great job on him,” Kent said. “Marvin Cannon did a great job. Different people were guarding him at different times and when you have that kind of length and athleticism on your bench, and if you work hard, you can wear down somebody’s good shooter.”
WSU went into the break with a five-point lead, but the Cougars outscored the Vandals 45-30 in the second half and deflated Idaho with an 11-0 run that spanned nearly 4 minutes.