Everything started with defense in the Washington State Cougars’ 89-72 victory over Nicholls State on Sunday in Pullman.
Washington State’s various zone configurations forced Nicholls State into 19 turnovers, and a mediocre 24-of-66 shooting from the floor. The Colonels could not get the Cougars out of defensive position and, by contrast, the aggressive Cougs owned the transitions and regularly left the Colonels in their wake in the open court.
WSU’s win in its season opener tantalized WSU coach Ernie Kent with how much potential his rangy, quick, aggressive and deep team showed.
“They have a chance to be a good basketball team if they continue to move in that direction,” Kent said. Although the Cougars, led by Robert Franks’ 31 points and 11 rebounds, shot 50 percent from the floor (35 of 70), Kent said “we left a lot of points on the floor.”
Franks, who got hot in the second half and scored 19 of his game-high total, agreed he and WSU can shoot even better. Like Kent, though, he raved about the Cougars’ defense. “We are long, and athletic and made stop after stop after stop.” WSU had nine steals.
Eight WSU players logged double-digit minutes, and a couple more nearly made it. The Cougars don’t have starters, said Kent, they have waves. “It doesn’t matter who the first wave is, the second wave is coming.”
He noted the energy WSU played with. “For an opening game, they bought in.”
Freshman C.J. Elleby contributed 12 points and a team-leading eight assists. Most of those he dealt in the open court. “Sometimes my jumper doesn’t fall,” Elleby said. “What I learned here is always attack, always be aggressive.” He watched the final 1:32 from the bench after being seized by a cramp.
“It’s nice to see a freshman cramp up at the end of a game. It shows how hard he played,” Kent said.
Although it was largely reduced to long-range shooting by WSU’s defense, Nicholls State hung with the Cougars through the first five minutes before WSU began to open a gap. With about 10 minutes to play in the first half, WSU went up 25-16 when Aljaz Kunc slammed home a shot off a fast break. The Cougars maintained a comfortable 10- to 12-point lead the rest of the way, until they went on a 12-2 run to go up 82-60 with 4:12 left. It was their biggest margin.
If a single play characterized the game, Viont’E Daniels and Elleby made it. Daniels tipped a Nicholls State pass to himself. He took off on a solo break but missed the shot. Elleby, trailing the play, grabbed the rebound and put it back for a 65-51 lead.
As much as WSU was able to harass the Colonels, they were also able to react to Nicholls State’s attempts at full-court defense.
“When teams pressure us, they make us play faster. The faster we play, the better we are,” said Kent.
The uptempo Cougars finished with 26 assists. “You just don’t see that at our level,” Kent said.
Danny Garrick scored 18 – on 6-of-13 shooting from beyond the arc – to pace Nicholls State. Gavin Pepper added 16 points.
The Colonels (1-2) play at Idaho on Tuesday.
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