PULLMAN – Coach Kyle Smith expects it will take four or five games for his new-look Washington State basketball team to “get settled in.”
In that case, the Cougars’ start was certainly promising.
WSU protected a double-digit lead throughout the second half and got some impressive showings from its newcomers, opening a much-anticipated season with a smooth 85-67 nonconference win against overmatched foe Alcorn State on Tuesday afternoon at a sparsely populated Beasley Coliseum.
“It was good for our first game,” transfer guard Tyrell Roberts said. “It’ll still take a minute. A lot of the time in the preseason we had some guys that were hurt.
“We’re going to jell more as we play more.”
WSU all but closed the door within the first 3 minutes of the second half.
The Cougars’ towering frontcourt tandem of freshman Mouhamed Gueye and sophomore Efe Abogidi keyed an 11-2 run out of the break with consecutive finishes underneath.
Roberts knocked down back-to-back 3-pointers, and in a flash, the free-flowing Cougars had sprinted out to a 23-point advantage.
The Cougars scored 85 or more points in only two games last season.
“In the second half, we just came out stronger,” said Roberts, a former Division II All-American at UC San Diego who paced the Cougars with 16 points on 6-of-12 shooting (4 of 9 on 3-pointers).
“Shots started hitting,” Roberts said. “We were trying to get some kills – that’s three stops in a row – and we got a few of those, and we extended that lead.”
The score didn’t get any closer than 14 points the rest of the way. The teams were tagged with 47 total fouls and combined for 51 free-throw attempts.
Guard Jefferson Koulibaly sparked a first-half run and finished with 13 points in his first career outing. The redshirt freshman missed all of last season with a shoulder injury.
“He’s just an energizer,” Smith said of Koulibaly. “We’ve talked about his defense, but he can score. He’s just a playmaker on both sides of the ball.”
Transfer guard Michael Flowers did a bit of everything, totaling nine points, six assists, two steals and 11 rebounds. Flowers was among the nation’s most prolific scorers last season at South Alabama.
“He’s not selfish at all. He makes the right plays,” Smith said. “Eleven rebounds shocked us all.
“When the lights are on, I thought he’d be pretty good, and he was.”
Sophomore guard T.J. Bamba scored 11 points, and forwards Abogidi (nine points, seven rebounds, two blocks) and Andrej Jakimovski (nine points, eight rebounds) had steady days despite missing extended periods in the preseason with injuries.
After a sloppy start for both sides – featuring several turnovers and just 13 combined points in the first 5 minutes – WSU found a rhythm and began to separate at about the midway point of the first half.
“We had our moments,” Smith said. “We were still a little deer-in-headlights because they mixed up their defenses.”
Koulibaly triggered a 13-4 run with a no-look assist to Gueye for a dunk. Koulibaly followed with a 3-pointer and a tough layin through contact.
The Cougs opened up a 13-point edge after consecutive 3-pointers from Jakimovski and Roberts, and the lead kept growing.
A nifty transition play from WSU’s backcourt – Flowers weaved through traffic and dumped off a dish to Roberts for a layup – signaled that the Cougars had shaken out of the funk.
“We haven’t played in front of fans in who knows how long, so I feel like that had something to do with us starting a little slow, but we picked it up and got the ‘W,’ ” Koulibaly said.
WSU knocked down seven 3-pointers in the first half and used its considerable edge in size to close off clear looks at the rim for the Braves.
“Defensively, I think we were good. We forced them into some tough shots,” Smith said.
Alcorn State, a lower-tier D-I program out of the SWAC, shot 38.3% against WSU’s 43.1% and was outrebounded 46-27.
The Cougars handed out 16 assists against 14 turnovers.
“Ball-handling was a plus,” Smith said. “We’re going in the right direction there.”
Standout guard Noah Williams shot 1 of 7 and finished with eight points. Starting center Dishon Jackson dealt with foul trouble and played just 12 minutes. Williams was “rusty” after missing some practice time recently.
“Dishon’s gonna be fine. So is Noah,” Smith said.
“We played 12 guys and 10 played quite a few minutes. We’ll need everyone moving forward. We’ve got a lot of games, but it’s good to see we can score in different ways, different options.”
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