Kyle Smith’s day began with a negative and ended with a positive.
That is, a negative COVID-19 test in the morning and a positive result for his young basketball team in the evening – both of which put the essence of Thanksgiving into perspective for the Washington State coach, who came out of COVID-19 protocol Wednesday and led the Cougars past Texas Southern 56-52 in the season opener at Beasley Coliseum.
“Ten days in my bedroom is a tough bid, to say the least,” a masked-up Smith told reporters on a Zoom call. “It’s been 28 years, I don’t think I’ve been away from a team – any team – that long. You can really go back to, honestly junior high. I said I’ve been on a team since I was 12 years old and I’ve never been away from a team. So actually there was a little depression on battling that stuff.”
As of last week, the WSU coach was planning to monitor the Cougars’ season opener from his home in Pullman, where Smith may have had to pull double duty, watching the Pac-12 Networks broadcast of the Texas Southern game while keeping an eye on the other group of boys he’s responsible for: 12-year-old Rocco, 10-year-old Bo and 7-year-old Luke.
In some ways, directing the 18-22-year-olds on his WSU roster may have been more of a challenge Wednesday night. In a post-CJ Elleby era, the Cougars trailed their SWAC opponent by three points at the halftime break and didn’t put the game away until Noah Williams took a charge with 11 seconds left, allowing Isaac Bonton to make two free throws on the next possession and restore a four-point WSU lead.
“We’re young and this is a product of not playing for awhile,” Bonton said. “No excuses, we don’t want to have excuses, but we’ve been working really hard so just keep honing in on defense. … We’re just trying to find our identity right now and just keep working every day. Offense is going to come, so we just have to really keep focusing on defense.”
It was important that neither the Cougars or Bonton lost sight of hat message – “offense is going to come” – Wednesday night. The box score would indicate WSU’s offense wasn’t any better in the second half than it was in the first, with the Cougars scoring 28 points in both, but their field goal efficiency improved, they created more opportunities at the free throw line and Bonton finally started to see some of his shots fall.
The senior guard who’s expected to carry much of the offensive load for the Cougars in the wake of Elleby’s departure to the NBA had just seven points in the first half, shooting a dismal 1 of 13 from the field. Bonton, who gained a reputation for being one of the conference’s most streaky shooters last season, saw five shots fall in the second half and scored 21 after halftime to finish with a game-high 28 points, while making 11 of 13 at the free throw line.
“My mindset is, along with all our guys, just keep being aggressive, stay with it, stay focused mentally and keep pushing,” Bonton said. “It happens. Games like this happen. We haven’t played in seven, eight months, so just staying with it throughout the game, finding a way to win.”
WSU’s second-leading scorer was senior Aljaz Kunc, who scored 11 points despite making just one shot from the field. Kunc was 9 of 9 from the charity stripe and also pulled down six rebounds. The Cougars also got contributions from freshman center Efe Abogidi, who got a starting nod and scored nine points on 4 of 5 from the field while grabbing eight rebounds and blocking one shot.
“He’s a unique player and I guess the guy that comes to mind, he’s kind of like Serge Ibaka, who’s a shot-blocker, rebounder and can make a 3. Makes corner 3’s,” Smith said of Abogidi. “Efe, if he works at it, he’ll be a good foul shooter. If he does that, it makes him a really unique player. Now his ball-handling needs to improve. He’s got to not take as many chances and that’ll be the next thing, to become the player he wants to be, that’ll be more of a spring, summer development to get his ball-handling and stuff like that.”
The Cougars, who host Eastern Washington on Saturday (8 p.m., Pac-12 Networks), were missing five players Wednesday due to injury: center Dishon Jackson, forward Carlos Rosario, guard Jefferson Koulibaly and walk-on guard Myles Fitzgerald-Warren. Smith has indicated Koulibaly’s injury is more long-term, but the others should have a chance to see the floor for WSU in 2020-21.
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