PULLMAN – When Washington State’s nonconference schedule was released, one of the most daunting games appeared to be a Nov. 25 contest against the University of Nebraska in the Cayman Islands Classic.
So, understandably, it may have been easy to look past the Nov. 21 game against a satellite branch of that same University of Nebraska.
But the Cougars couldn’t shake off little brother Thursday, leading by as many 15 points in the first half before Nebraska Omaha surged late to pick up an 85-77 win in front of 2,204 fans at Beasley Coliseum.
Up next is a test against actual Nebraska – the Big-12 Cornhuskers, that is – Monday at 4:30 p.m. in the Caribbean, which marks the first of three games for WSU in a tournament that also features New Mexico State, Old Dominion, South Florida, George Mason, Loyola Chicago and Colorado State.
“I think we’re looking at 22 hours of travel or something. We’ve got a long trip,” WSU coach Kyle Smith said. “We’ll get it out of our system, but it would feel a lot better going with a win. They all sting when you lose and just to be up, I think we were up 15 with 17 to go, and not have a rally. We used every timeout. We couldn’t keep it in a tight situation, so we’ve got to watch ourselves. We disintegrated defensively and didn’t have that same edge that we have.”
WSU’s early success from beyond the 3-point arc fizzled in the second half, right as Omaha’s perimeter shot started to warm up. The Cougars made 7 of 13 (53 percent) in the first half, but dropped to 5 of 22 (22 percent) in the second half. The Mavericks, meanwhile, had a 1-of-8 start (12 percent) but finished 6 of 11 (54 percent).
“I think we lost focus defensively mainly,” Smith said. “They have good guards, and they were going to be relentless about attacking, and we didn’t do a good job of guarding off the dribble. Terrible all night in defensive transition. Credit to them, but you don’t like to give up 3s. We gave up three in the second half out of transition.”
The Cougars built their lead behind the 3-point shot, knocking down three over a 2-minute span to open up a 35-27 lead after trailing 27-24. Bonton, who’d struggled from 3-point land making just one of his first 15 against Seattle U, Santa Clara and Idaho State, opened the game making 3 of 5 against Omaha. Jeff Pollard, who worked to become a perimeter threat in the offseason, made 2 of 3.
CJ Elleby had 18 points by halftime, also going 2 of 3 from deep, and matched his career high by hitting two free throws to reach 27. But Elleby was held scoreless the final 11:12 – a stretch that also coincided with the Mavericks outscoring the Cougars 34-19.
“I think I just wasn’t being aggressive enough with the ball and settling,” Elleby said. “We just didn’t have the same energy we had in the first half.”
Bonton finished with 18 points on a 7-of-20 shooting and dropped to 5 of 28 on the year from 3-point range. Aljaz Kunc made two 3-pointers and scored 13 points, and Pollard had 12 points, although he was limited to two in the second half. Elleby had a team-high nine rebounds.
The Mavericks were paced by KJ Robinson, who came off the bench to score 20 points. JT Gibson added 18 points and Ayo Akinwole 14.
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