BERKELEY, Calif. – Most of Washington State’s basketball players hadn’t left the general Palouse region in at least six months – let alone for a basketball game – before boarding a plane for the Bay Area on Wednesday. Understandably, Kyle Smith was anxious to see how a young team with three freshman starters would fare in a setting other than the one that played host to the first nine games of the season.
The Cougars look quite comfortable away from Beasley Coliseum as well.
Coming off a 25-point outing against Arizona, senior point guard Isaac Bonton connected on a pair of deep 3-pointers early in the first half and continued to create opportunities for himself and teammates, guiding the Cougars to a 71-60 win over a Golden Bears team playing without all-conference guard Matt Bradley.
In his most efficient outing of the season, Bonton scored a game-high 22 points on 7 of 11 (63%) from the field, dishing out six assists and hauling down five rebounds. Bonton finished 5 of 6 from the foul line, chipped in a steal and committed five turnovers.
Previously, the Portland native’s most efficient shooting effort came in Saturday’s loss to the Wildcats, which saw Bonton go 10 of 23 (43%) in that game. Just once in the eight games before that one had he shot better than 40% from the field.
“I’m in a little bit of a better rhythm right now, just playing the right way and starting to settle down more and trusting my guys more,” Bonton said. “We’re building more chemistry as the time goes on, but defensively right now is the key for us and that’s been the key. Being able to have that base and build off that has helped me get in my rhythm a little bit better.”
Bonton scored 20-plus points for the third time this season, but his impact stretched well beyond what he generated on the offensive end of the floor. The veteran point guard was a game-high +21 for the Cougars and his activity on defense was key in holding the Golden Bears to 20 of 58 from the field.
“He really played close to a flawless game,” Smith said. “He may have had one bad decision on a pick-and-roll that I can remember.”
Next up for WSU (9-1, 2-1) is a trip to Santa Cruz, California, for Saturday’s game against Stanford (7-3, 3-1). The Cougars and Cardinal are playing at Kaiser Permanente Arena – home of the G-League’s Santa Cruz Warriors – because of COVID-19 restrictions in Santa Clara County. Stanford has won six of its past seven after beating Washington 91-75 Thursday.
The Cougars carried over the positive aspects of their double-overtime loss to Arizona on Saturday – Bonton’s scoring above all else – and corrected the things that left a bitter taste in their month.
A team that clanked 18 free throws against the Wildcats and finished 19 of 37 spent a good portion of the last week of practice at the foul line, working with veteran assistant Jim Shaw, who’s famous for his “free-throw rehab” routine.
Against California, the Cougars finished 18 of 23 (78%) from the line and closed the game by making 10 consecutive free throws. Players spent extensive time working on free throws at practice, but many carved out time outside of that to ensure Saturday’s issues wouldn’t be repeated in Berkeley.
“I knew we were, coach Shaw is maniacal about that,” Bonton said. “We knew we were going to get back to free-throw rehab at practice the next day. I don’t even think we had practice, but there was a lot of guys in the gym shooting free throws. … I was confident in my guys, we were going to get that done.”
Bonton paced the Cougars, but his younger teammates contributed, too. Freshman Efe Abogidi, playing the first road game of his career, came close to another double-double with 12 points and nine rebounds. Dishon Jackson, another freshman and a Bay Area native whose mother played for Cal’s women’s team, got his second straight start at center and scored eight points.
Sophomore Noah Williams (11 pts.) also scored in double digits, while Volodymyr Markovetskyy, who returned from COVID-19 protocol, had seven points and eight rebounds. Jaz Kunc scored seven points to go along with six rebounds.
“We just need to clean up some things on defense, but it was a good win,” Abogidi said. “I think many more to come.”
The Cougars needed to clean up their offense to pull away from the Golden Bears in the second half. WSU committed 11 turnovers through the game’s first 20 minutes – their most in a single half this season – but managed to take care of the ball in the second half, with just four additional turnovers.
Abogidi’s 3-point shooting sparked the Cougars early in the second half. The Nigerian-born center made his second and third of the game within the first two minutes and WSU eventually grew its lead to 15 points with 10:31 to play.
“Very, very comfortable, thanks to my teammates,” Abogidi said of his 3-point stroke.
Clutch free throw shooting helped the Cougars maintain their lead down the stretch, as WSU made 13 of 15 in the second half.
The Golden Bears had three players in double figures, but nobody finished with more than 11 points. Andre Kelly and Grant Anticevich both fouled out of the game late in the second half.
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