STANFORD, Calif. – Before Washington State boarded a plane for the Bay Area earlier this week, Kyle Smith advised the Cougars they’d need to bring their defense on the road.
The coach may need to deliver the same message with a little more urgency before the Cougars next leave Pullman.
A program that’s committed to the defensive end of the floor didn’t stress it enough in Thursday night’s loss to Cal and at times didn’t seem to stress it at all on Saturday afternoon in an 88-62 loss to Stanford. It gave the Cougars their third loss in four games, dropping them to 10-7 overall and 1-2 in Pac-12 Conference play.
The Cardinal built a 17-point lead fairly early in the first half – the largest deficit of the season for WSU – and eventually handed the Cougars their first 20-point defeat under Smith.
“Stanford’s good, they played really well, they’re well-coached. They’re probably the best team we’ve played this year, it felt like,” Smith said. “They’re good. Well, they were tonight, I’ll tell you that much.”
Smith’s assessment isn’t far off. Even after just two weeks, the Cardinal (14-2, 3-0) are the only team in the Pac-12 that hasn’t absorbed a conference loss. There’s a chance they’ll come out of the weekend receiving Associated Press Top 25 votes, upsetting Washington 61-55 on Thursday and routing WSU by 26 at Maples Pavilion.
But given that, it’s hard to blame the Cougars if they felt they should’ve left with more than 62 points on a day they shot 22 of 56 from the field after making just 7 of 29 shots in the first half. Top scorer CJ Elleby recovered from a 0-of-7 start, but the sophomore forward still finished just 2 of 9 and with only six points, and the Cougars made only half their free throws at 6 of 12.
WSU’s leading scorer was Isaac Bonton with 15 points, but it took the transfer point guard 11 shot attempts to get there. Like Elleby, he too struggled to find his shot early, going 0 for 5 in the first half.
Granted, the Cougars have struggled to find an offensive groove most of the season and still managed to stay in games against USC and Cal – losses that came by a combined 16 points – because of their effort on defense.
That only showed up in small spurts as Stanford raced out to a 46-18 halftime lead while shooting a superb 18 of 27 (66%) from the field and dominating inside the paint.
“It was hard for us to keep them out of the paint and in transition they’re really good,” Smith said. “They’re a really selfless team and skillful. So we’ve got to be really good to defend them.”
The Cardinal had a 50-16 advantage in points in the paint, and the hosts assisted on 23 of their 36 baskets, as opposed to just 13 from WSU. The Cougars were also shut out on fast-break points for the first time this season but gave the Cardinal more than a few opportunities, conceding 18 turnovers to Stanford’s nine.
The Cougars regrouped somewhat in the second half, outscoring the Cardinal 44-42.
“We still tried to play right for the most part offensively,” Smith said. “I thought we tried to stay in our stuff, which in those situations you’ve just got to try to get better possession by possession. We had some guys that hadn’t played a lot, and it showed up defensively more than anything.”
Daron Henson included. The transfer forward had logged only 2 minutes in one game this season as the Cougars’ third “four man,” but with Tony Miller injured, Henson came off the bench to score 12 points and connect on four 3-pointers, helping WSU shoot a respectable 9 of 23 from beyond the arc.
“I think the coaches have done a good job of keeping me in it,” Henson said. “So has my teammates, my family back home. So I’ve always kept confidence in myself.”
Henson logged 21 minutes, grabbed two rebounds and had three turnovers.
“He’s kept a good attitude. He can really shoot the ball and there’s a little rust,” Smith said. “He played at Utah State as a freshman, so he’s played a pretty good level. … He is one of our better shooters, for sure.”
Smith said an ankle injury kept Miller out of his first Pac-12 game. Guard Jaylen Shead missed his fifth game of the year and first conference game with an injury.
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