Washington State coach Kyle Smith gave the Cougars’ 71-68 win over Eastern Washington the “gutsy” label.
WSU erased a double-digit deficit, trailed for 33 minutes and came up with timely production down the stretch to aid his reasoning.
The shorthanded Eagles were mettlesome.
With five players sitting out due to COVID-19 protocols, the defending Big Sky Conference champion played only six players at a fanless Beasley Coliseum, nearly coming away with a season-opening victory over the Pac-12 program.
“(EWU) has a lot of experience, they know how to win,” Smith said. “I know they were a little shorthanded. I expected a rope-a-dope, but they came and played well, and I’m happy our guys hung in there.”
Legans didn’t point to his lack of bodies as an excuse.
“We were right in the game, but we made some bonehead plays,” Legans said. “We had 14 turnovers, shot (68%) at the line and didn’t do the things we needed to do.”
Here’s a list of observations after WSU and EWU’s first meeting since 2012.
Groves steps up
Big Sky Conference preseason favorite Eastern Washington returned a horde of experienced, high-scoring guards, but its interior was in question with the graduation of standout forward Mason Peatling.
Tanner Groves, a 6-foot-8 junior forward from Shadle Park High School, looked more than comfortable supplanting the Big Sky Conference’s Most Valuable Player.
Groves, who scored a team-high 17 points with nine rebounds and three assists, exhibited his ability to score inside and out (2 for 5 from 3-point range) while providing a solid defensive presence against the longer Cougars.
His second 3 gave EWU a 16-3 lead.
“Mason helped prepared me going against bigger opponents,” Groves said. “I went into that game with a chip on my shoulder, too, being the newer guy.”
Groves limped off the court due to cramping in the final two minutes and didn’t return.
“Tanner was the second-best big man in the league last year, just nobody knew it because he was playing behind (Peatling),” Legans said. “I was pleased with how he played.”
Williams did it all
Noah Williams’ late offensive surge and final stat line – 19 points, eight rebounds, four steals and three assists – was key for Washington State.
His biggest play wasn’t a statistic.
Williams drew a charge on a spinning Kim Aiken Jr., who looked to take a go-ahead shot in the closing seconds as the Cougars led 69-68.
Williams also drew a pivotal charge in a 56-52 win over Texas Southern on Wednesday.
He also helped keep EWU star Jacob Davison – the Big Sky’s preseason MVP who was in foul trouble – in check (14 points, 4-for-10 shooting, five turnovers).
“I go in with the mindset that nobody can score on me,” Williams said. “That I’m the best defender on the court and I’m here to make stops.”
What the Eagles were missing
Starting point guard Ellis Magnuson, who was fourth in the Big Sky in assists last season (4.2 apg), sixth-man shooting guard Casson Rouse and young reserves Tyler Roberson, Steele Venters and Austin Fadal would have helped provide fresher legs against the deeper, bigger Cougars.
One of the five players recently had a positive coronavirus test and the other four players – as well assistant coach Bobby Suarez – also had to isolate as a precaution after being in close contact with the player who tested positive.
Magnuson was on the bench after meeting the required days of isolation, Legans said, but wasn’t allowed to play.
Eight EWU players suited up, including seven scholarship players and a walk-on. Two didn’t see the floor.
“We didn’t play the same speed we usually do,” Legans said. “But we have to adjust like everyone else does. Maybe their legs were a little tired, but they were excited enough to play with four guys.”
EWU was slated to open its season last week at No. 20 Oregon, but the game was postponed after two EWU players tested positive. Two days later, one of the two players yielded a negative result.
The Eagles were also scheduled to face NAIA Montana Tech in a home opener on Monday, but the Orediggers canceled due to their own positive coronavirus tests, Legans said.
Northern Arizona was also set to host EWU in a pair of Big Sky Conference openers next weekend, but the games were postponed due to coronavirus concerns.
Locals contribute Groves and younger brother Jacob – a 6-7 sophomore guard and fellow Shadle Park alum – both cracked the starting lineup and combined for 33 points and 17 rebounds.
They weren’t the only local high school products who saw the floor.
With 6-10 Efe Abogidi in foul trouble, fellow big man and Clarkston graduate Brandton Chatfield (four points) made the most of his nine minutes, tying the game 42-all with his first bucket and later giving the Cougars a 50-48 lead.
“It’s always really good to see the local guys get the respect they deserve,” Tanner Groves said. “It was really good to see.”
Zone worked for Cougs
With Abogidi in foul trouble, Smith opted to drop into a zone in the second half, when the guard-heavy Eagles went 2 for 18 from 3-point range.
“I don’t think we’ll see anyone like (EWU) in our league, that spreads you out with five the way they do,” Smith said.
“That’s a team you wouldn’t think you could zone, because they shoot it so well and are skillful, but we got away with it down the stretch.”
Legans said his team didn’t respond when it needed to.
“When they went zone, we went turnover, turnover, missed shot, turnover,” Legans said. “We didn’t make the right adjustment late.”
Bonton streaky, but big at the line
WSU high-scoring senior guard Isaac Bonton is shooting 24% from the field through two games, connecting on only 7 of 28 attempts against Texas Southern and 3 of 16 against EWU.
He’s perfect at the free-throw line in clutch situations, though.
Bonton hit two free throws at the 10-second mark, helping the Cougars hold off Texas Southern on Wednesday.
On Saturday, Bonton hit two free throws with two seconds left that finally put away the Eagles.
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