PULLMAN – Kyle Smith’s name wasn’t printed on the postgame box score Sunday afternoon.
The impact of Washington State’s first-year coach may as well have been, though.
Just once in five years under Smith’s predecessor had the Cougars forced an opponent into at least 20 turnovers in a single game – that coming in the 2017-18 season opener against Texas Southern, when WSU forced exactly that number in a narrow win.
So, the fact the Cougars have done that on four occasions this season in only 10 games under Smith – including a 70-56 win over UC Riverside at Beasley Coliseum on Sunday – is one example of how determined they are to clean up their act on the defensive side of the ball.
Again, that’s once in 98 total games under former coach Ernie Kent – hardly one percent – and already four in 10 under Smith, who says his team spends nearly two-thirds of its practice time focused on defense.
Even if it’s coming against lower-end mid-majors, the progress has already paid off.
WSU forced 21 turnovers against Santa Clara, 20 against both Idaho State and Colorado State, and Smith’s team kept the trend going on Sunday against UC Riverside, forcing the Highlanders into 23 turnovers during a win in front of a small winter break crowd that numbered just 1,999.
The 23 turnovers were WSU’s most in a single game since the Cougars forced 25 in an 81-59 win over Gonzaga in 2010.
“That’s what we do,” Smith said. “I think I said (after) New Mexico State, we’ve got to hang our hat on defense. I think we have some good quickness on the perimeter, and we did that tonight. I knew that game was probably going to be tricky because there were probably going to be not that many possessions, and we got off to a good start in both halves.”
If the Cougars can play solid defense long enough, they figure the offense will arrive at some point, even if it only arrives in spurts.
One such spurt in the second half allowed WSU to shrug off a few scary moments against the Highlanders of the Big West Conference, and the Cougars used a 12-0 run to rebuild a double-digit lead and coast through the rest of their 14-point win.
Sophomore forward CJ Elleby was WSU’s points leader for the eighth time in 11 games, finishing with 20 on 7-of-11 shooting from the field and 5-of-6 from the free throw line. For the second time in as many games Elleby followed a four-point first half with a 16-point second half.
“I think it’s kind of the way it plays out, but I definitely am a little more aggressive to the basket in the second half the last two games,” Elleby said. “I just need to work on probably starting that way.”
After a two-minute scoreless stretch, Elleby set the tone for WSU with a sequence that saw the long, lanky forward pull down an offensive rebound as he drew a foul, then knock down a jump shot on the inbound play. Elleby scored a fastbreak layup on the next WSU possession to put the Cougars up six.
“CJ, I’m really proud of him the way he’s played the last three games,” Smith said. “Didn’t shoot the ball well against Idaho, but he is really playing with a purpose and kind of how you have to when you’re the lead guy. The defense is going to come after him every game, and he’s going to bide his time sometimes and pick his spots, and he did.”
Elleby, who had six rebounds, four turnovers and three steals, got some help on offense, with four other Cougars scoring in double figures. Jeff Pollard scored 16 points to go along with seven rebounds, Jaz Kunc fell one point of tying his career high with 13, and Isaac Bonton had 12 points, though it came on just 5-of-15 shooting.
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