PULLMAN – Last season, during the early portion of its nonconference slate, Washington State had a habit of eking out nail-biting wins.
WSU has led by 20-plus points at some point in each contest to start this campaign.
These aren’t the same Cougars.
But they did revert a bit Monday night at Beasley Coliseum, and needed to grind out a tense finish.
WSU walloped Winthrop early. Then, perhaps feeling well in control as the second half wound down, the hosts let up for an extended stretch of sluggish play.
It got closer than the Cougs would have preferred, but they held on in crunch time, topping the pesty Eagles 92-86.
It was the first gut check of the season for unbeaten WSU (5-0), which went nine minutes without a field goal late in the game as Winthrop (2-3) whittled the Cougars’ once-24-point edge down to seven with about two minutes remaining.
“It’s very important,” star guard Noah Williams said of playing in a nervy game. “Pac-12 is not easy basketball. … Teams aren’t going to give us slack. They’re going to give us their very best every night. It was definitely a good experience to have that early in the season. So, late in the season – when March Madness comes around, when the Pac-12 tournament comes around – we know how to play when adversity hits.”
A timely driving layup from D.J. Rodman snapped WSU’s field-goal drought with 2:24 to play, and the Cougars were efficient enough at the foul line (28 of 37) to preserve the advantage.
“It was a team in a situation we haven’t been in,” Cougars coach Kyle Smith said. “We gotta learn how to play at home and get confidence and know what we’re doing, and they got us on our heels a little bit. … To their credit, they were competing.
“We thought: ‘Well, they’ll go away,’ and they didn’t go away.”
Winthrop compiled a 23-2 record last season and qualified for the NCAA Tournament. The 12th-seeded Eagles lost to No. 5 Villanova.
Winthrop was picked before this season to repeat as the champion of the Big South Conference.
But the Eagles were outgunned early in this one, and they didn’t have the size or manpower necessary to combat WSU’s length and depth, and crawl completely out of the hole. The Cougs went up 64-40 at 13:42 in the second half.
Winthrop guard Patrick Good wowed, keeping the Eagles afloat down the stretch with a flurry of 3s.
Good totaled 33 points and was deadly from downtown, connecting on 11 of 19 attempts – 9 of 15 in the second half.
Smith and Cougar players said they gave Good too many open looks.
“We didn’t have any answers for (him),” Smith said.
The Cougs responded to Winthrop spurts throughout the early stages of the second half, filling it up from the floor – they shot about 60% from the field before their late lapse and finished 51.9% on field goals.
WSU went 10 of 18 from distance but didn’t hit a 3 over the final 14:04 and struggled with fouls and turnovers in the second period.
“This team, we get off to really good starts,” WSU guard Michael Flowers said. “I feel like our next step is just to continue it, and keep our foot on the opponent’s neck.”
WSU separated from the Eagles (2-3) midway through the first half with a 16-2 run sparked by teamwide defense and Williams, who dropped a defender with a sweet stepback and canned his first 3 of the year, then soon after put in a transition layup.
“We got hella stops,” Williams said of the first half. “It was just getting stops after stops in the first half, and we stopped doing that in the second half. We kinda let up.”
A pair of quick buckets off the bench from guard T.J. Bamba and 3s from Williams, guard Tyrell Roberts and forward Andrej Jakimovski made it 32-12 in favor of the Cougars at 7:10 in the opening period.
Roberts drained three triples and Flowers, another newcomer guard, drilled a difficult stepback 3 at the first-half buzzer.
Williams totaled 12 of his 19 points before the break. Flowers led WSU with 20 points, eight on freebies. Roberts knocked down three 3s and had 13 points.
“We gotta remember to celebrate, celebrate 5-0,” Smith said. “It’s hard to win. It’s hard to be good. If you buy into, ‘Oh, what happened tonight?’ Well, we won. We can do things better, but enjoy the victory.”
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