PULLMAN – CJ Elleby’s long, frizzy hair may be the most striking aspect of the sophomore forward’s exterior.
It’s his long limbs that could play a pivotal role for a Washington State team making a dogged effort this season to obstruct every passing lane and snatch everything that comes off the rim.
Many of the NBA teams that hosted Elleby for pre-draft workouts last spring told the forward he should concentrate on his defense. He didn’t take the advice for granted.
Elleby’s length bothered Idaho State from start to finish Sunday afternoon and the standout sophomore produced a career-high seven steals – just one shy of the school record – to propel the Cougars to a 72-61 win over the Bengals in front of 2,704 fans at Beasley Coliseum.
Twice during the first half, Idaho State made the mistake of throwing a pass to midcourt with Elleby lurking nearby. The long-armed forward intercepted both, then bolted the opposite direction – nothing in his way but a clear path and the hoop.
Just for good measure, Elleby did it once more late in the second half, swooping in front of Nico Aguirre’s chest pass to make a routine pick and cap the sequence with a dunk on the other end. It opened up WSU’s largest lead of the game at 69-55.
“It’s my favorite,” Elleby said. “I love getting those steals.”
The Cougars had been scouting ISU since Wednesday and Elleby noticed the Bengals had a tendency at times to move the ball freely, perhaps not realizing how that could bite them against a more athletic, more aggressive team from the Pac-12 Conference.
“I was being aggressive in the passing lane,” Elleby said, “because I noticed they were just swinging the ball in their offense, so I was able to pick a few of those off.”
On that note, first-year coach Kyle Smith added: “I was just really proud he got those steals off the scout. We just kind of showed him where there’d be opportunities and he did a great job, he was really aggressive. I think he’s excited to play games, which you should be anyway, but he really gets excited to play games and just his energy throughout the game was great and he played really well.”
Had Elleby interrupted the passing lane just once more for an eighth steal, he would’ve matched the program record held by Mike Bush (1999 vs. Portland State) and Don Collins (1980 vs. Washington). Prior to the game, Elleby’s career-high was three.
While defense is something Elleby’s working to add, scoring and rebounding have always been part of the player’s arsenal,. He did plenty of both Saturday, leading all scorers with 23 points – which came on 9-of-14 shooting – while tacking on a team-high eight rebounds.
Isaac Bonton added 15 points, but did it shooting just 5 of 15 from the field and 1 of 7 from 3-point range. Senior forward Jeff Pollard had 11 points on his 23rd birthday and chipped in six rebounds and one block.
“Obviously woke up, got texts from friends and family, they’re all like ‘Happy Birthday’ this, that and everything,” Pollard said. “But I was kind of focused on one thing and one thing only, but now that we got the business taken care of, time to relax and enjoy being 23 now.”
The Cougars held ISU’s Tarki Cool without a basket two games after the guard exploded for 41 points in a win at Air Force, and the national leader in free-throw attempts was held to just two.
“It’s a weapon we don’t have, we’re working on ways to get to the foul line,” Smith said. “But just guard them really well. And it was a big part of our scout. But him, Maker and Stutzman, we didn’t do as good a job on Stutzman, but if they’ve got two of those three guys it’ll be tough. If all three of them hit it, it’d be a long night.”
Jared Stutzman had 21 points on 5-of-8 from distance for the Bengals and Chier Maker, the cousin of Milwaukee Bucks big man Thon Maker, finished with 15 points.
The Cougars (2-1) play Omaha (2-2) next at 4 p.m. Thursday at Beasley Coliseum.
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