As a lead that had reached 31 points melted to 12 late in the second half, it highlighted what a different team Washington State is without Robert Franks on the floor.
But the Cougars drew the line there and held off Cal Poly for an 84-70 win Monday, which put a spotlight, as well, on what coach Ernie Kent believes is a special defensive unit.
“It’s the first time in a long time I have had a defense that can dictate tempo in a game,” Kent said.
When that tempo feeds into an unselfish offense, as it did against the Mustangs, the Cougars are a handful. They had 25 assists in hitting 33 of 67 shots, 49.3 percent from the floor.
“We are really good when we share the ball,” said Kent.
Also, the Cougars made seven steals and harassed the Mustangs into 16 turnovers, against only 14 assists, never a good ratio for an offense.
The Cal Poly rally Kent shrugged off as the result of emptying his bench to get some game tape of all his players to use for teaching.
“The game got away from us a little bit,” he acknowledged, “We had some weird lineups in there. To their credit, they kept chipping away,” he said of the Mustangs.
Franks contributed 30 points on 12-of-22 shooting, and he was on the floor for all but 3 1/2 minutes. The Mustangs’ placid zone was hardly an impediment. Franks was able to get the ball unchallenged on the perimeter and was free then to choose his driving angles or to pull up for jump shots.
“Everyone can see how important Robert Franks is to us. He gets 30 and makes it look easy,” Kent said.
Because WSU was able to hit from outside, it forced Cal Poly to extend its zone and made it even easier for Franks to find room to drive to the hoop, Kent pointed out.
Franks also got in on the assist bonanza with three.
The Mustangs, in fact, had trouble with several WSU shooters. Ahmed Ali scored 15 points, including a back-to-back 3-pointers in the first half to slow a Mustang rally. Isaiah Wade added 14 points and grabbed eight rebounds.
“Coach dwelled on that 2-3 zone. We ran a lot of plays against it in practice, so it was not new to us,” Wade said. “We got the job done.”
The Mustangs had an edge in size in the paint against WSU but were largely unable to exploit it. Hank Hollingsworth and Tuukka Jaakkola, each 6-10, led Cal Poly with five rebounds apiece. But Hollingsworth scored only five points and Jaakkola had two.
This is where the Cougars 1-3-1 defense really delivered according to Kent. Because WSU’s rangy defenders were quick enough to keep up with the Mustangs’ guards “it was difficult for them to see over our size to see their size underneath,” Kent said.
About midway through the first half, Cal Poly was still hanging reasonably close to the Cougs, trailing 25-15. But WSU turned up the defensive pressure with its 1-3-1. It built the lead to 19 points over the next five minutes, 37-18, before Cal Poly mounted a bit of a comeback with six straight points of its own on a pair of free throws by Donovan Fields, a 3-pointer from the corner by Kuba Nizoil and a slam in the lane by Hollingsworth to finish a fast break. Kent called a time out. Whatever he said got the Cougars reengaged. Ali delivered his timely back-to-back threes to put WSU in front, 46-24, on the way to a 54-27 halftime lead.
Ali, like Kent, pointed to the Cougars making the extra pass to compile their impressive assist total.
“My team did a really good job of giving up the ball,” he said.
Fields led the Mustangs with 22 points. He also accounted for half of Cal Poly’s 14 assists.
The win improved WSU’s record to 2-1. Cal Poly fell to 1-2. The victory also gives the Cougars confidence going into the holiday break, said Franks.
“We know what we are capable of on the defensive end.”
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