PULLMAN – With a handful of its grizzled veterans shelved, a group of much less-seasoned Washington State basketball players was thrown into the fire against a USC team that seemed to hold just about every advantage on paper.
The story of the Pac-12 opener wasn’t that the Cougars were tossed into the fire, but how well they navigated it.
Without two starters and a rotational player for a majority of Thursday’s game against USC, WSU managed to play with the defensive intensity Kyle Smith promised when he took the job in Pullman 10 months ago. Even on their worst-shooting night of the year, the Cougars gave themselves one opportunity after another to pull in front of the Trojans during a 65-56 loss at Beasley Coliseum.
WSU used its defense to crawl out of a 13-point hole in the first half. The Cougars trimmed the deficit to one possession on six occasions, but the inopportune shooting never allowed them to do anything more than that. The Trojans reestablished a double-digit lead in the final 2 1/2 minutes to pull away in front of a crowd of 2,256.
“We gave ourselves a chance,” Smith said. “The obvious elephant in the room is you can’t expect to win and shoot the way we shot it. We’ve got to get a little more patient … I think our guys were anxious and we’ve just got to play more within ourselves.”
Three WSU players – top scorer CJ Elleby included – stayed around afterward to get some extra shots up in preparation for Saturday’s home game against UCLA.
They wanted to immediately flush Thursday’s game.
Elleby, who came into Pac-12 play as the league’s third-leading scorer with 20.3 points per game, had his worst outing of the year, making 3 of 22 from the field and 1 of 8 from the 3-point line to finish with nine points – his first time in single figures this season.
“They played him with the small guy on the switch and stuff. It was hard for him to get his shot,” Smith said. “Then he had some drives where it was like, ‘Mmm, I thought there was some contact there.’ … I thought he took a couple he’d like to take back. … I think on that end, he’s just got to let the game come to him more.”
The rest of the Cougars followed Elleby, shooting sub-30 percent for the first time this season and finishing 22 of 79 from the field. WSU shot just 6 of 28 from 3-point range and only had 10 free-throw attempts.
A shortened bench made matters worse.
WSU came into the game without starting point guard Jaylen Shead and backup guard Marvin Cannon. The Cougars lost Jeff Pollard 5 minutes into the first half when the senior took a hard spill while absorbing a charge. Pollard was taken to the hospital toward the end of the first half, but X-rays for a facial fracture came back negative and the starting forward returned late in the second, albeit with the Cougars trailing by 10 points.
“No one’s going to feel sorry for you, but we had some injuries at inopportune times,” Smith said. “… It also created some opportunities for guys. DJ (Rodman), I thought he represented himself well. We were plus-six when DJ was in the game, so he did well. Vova (Markovetskyy) got in there, played 9 minutes. He did some good things, too. They need that experience in a big game against a good team and hopefully we keep growing.”
Tony Miller was also effective in the post with Pollard out, scoring 15 points and grabbing 10 rebounds for his first double-double of the season.
But nobody in a WSU uniform could handle USC big man Onyeka Okongwu, a 6-foot-9 freshman and former five-star recruit who led the game with 27 points, 12 rebounds and three blocked shots.
“We’ve got a brand-new team pretty much, so this was the first Pac-12 competition for a lot of guys,” guard Jervae Robinson said. “They don’t really know what to expect, so tonight gave us a look of what we’re going to be seeing every single night and gave us some motivation to keep getting better in practice and keep going hard.”
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