It isn’t that the Cougars were agitated by the nicknames broadcasters and writers had bestowed on them the first four games of the season. They just didn’t want to be one-dimensional.
The “Comeback Kids,” “Comeback Cougs” or “Cardiac Cougs” decided for at least one game they’d rather be the “Lead from wire to wire with no dramatic ending Cougs.”
It fit them well.
For the first time this season, Washington State didn’t have to overcome a halftime deficit to win at Beasley Coliseum, and after winning four games by a combined 14 points, the Cougars were even somewhat convincing in Sunday’s nonconference tilt, beating Portland State 69-60 to improve to 5-0 .
WSU will have a chance to complete a four-game nonconference sweep of the Big Sky Conference when it hosts Montana State on Friday. A tipoff time is yet to be determined, but the game will air on Pac-12 Networks.
“Personally, I just feel like coming back, it shows a lot of grit,” senior point guard Isaac Bonton said. “We’re a gritty team and we’re going to grind out wins and it’s going to come to that point. So early on in the season, I feel like it was big for us to see that we can do that so we can have that ability later on in the season.”
It was good to see the opposite, too. The Cougars scored the game’s first bucket on a layup from Efe Abogidi, never trailed and extended their lead to nine points with a minute to play in the second half, effectively closing the door on any chances of a Portland State comeback.
“But we definitely want to step on teams’ throats,” Bonton continued. “We definitely want to be those guys that can get a lead early and then maintain a lead. You want to have a balance in everything. I’m really proud of my guys, just early on, being that young and grinding out wins, finding ways to win.”
When CJ Elleby left the Cougars for the NBA, it was widely expected that a guard in his second year with Kyle Smith’s program would take on the lead scorer role. But most expected that player to be Bonton, the second-year transfer from Montana State who averaged 15.3 points per game in 2019-20, not sophomore Noah Williams, who averaged just 6.2 in his first Pac-12 season.
Sure enough, Williams has carried the baton as WSU’s leading scorer in three of the first five games, including Sunday when the Seattle native came up in a big way with Bonton in foul trouble. Williams scored 18 points on 8-of-12 shooting and contributed five rebounds, two assists and one steal.
“All the hard work I’ve put in during the offseason in quarantine is showing and it’s paying off,” Williams told Dan Dickau of the Pac-12 Networks in a postgame interview. “My 3 ball is knocking down, I just feel way more confident while I’m out there. Everything’s been feeling great and I just feel like I’m in the flow of everything.”
A team that’s desperate to find offensive balance in the post-Elleby era achieved it on Sunday, with four players scoring in double figures for the first time this season. Williams led the group with 18, but Bonton added 16 points before fouling out and freshman guard T.J. Bamba reached double digits for the first time, scoring 15 points, while fellow rookie Andrej Jakimovski added 12.
“It makes the defense harder to guard us,” Bamba said of WSU’s balance. “If it’s only Noah and Isaac able to create shots and score all the time, then the defense will just be focusing in on them and that makes it harder for them. So somebody else steps up, if somebody else is contributing to the scoring, get others involved, that means the defense has to focus on all five guys.”
In the face of Portland State’s pressure defense, the Cougars emphasized ball security, committing just 13 turnovers – one more than their season low against Eastern Washington. The Vikings committed 12 turnovers and shot 30% from the field and 21% from the 3-point line.
“They’re going to be relentless on the backboard, they’re going to be relentless on full-court pressure and they’re hoping you make other mistakes – take quick shots, kick the ball out of bounds,” WSU coach Kyle Smith said. “We did our fair share, but end of the day we hung onto our guts.”
The Cougars were dealt more injury adversity Sunday, losing sophomore forward DJ Rodman to a high ankle sprain, Smith said. It’s unclear how long Rodman will be sidelined, but he becomes the third starter/rotational player to sustain injury within the first three weeks of this shortened season, joining Tony Miller and Jaz Kunc.