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Sports >  WSU basketball

Guard Justin Powell puts on passing clinic in Washington State debut, Cougars cruise past Texas State

Nov. 7, 2022 Updated Tue., Nov. 8, 2022 at 10:10 a.m.

Washington State guard Justin Powell, left, takes the ball up the court during the Cougars' season opener Monday against Texas State at Beasley Coliseum in Pullman. Powell finished with 14 points and 12 assists in WSU's win.  (WSU Athletics)
Washington State guard Justin Powell, left, takes the ball up the court during the Cougars' season opener Monday against Texas State at Beasley Coliseum in Pullman. Powell finished with 14 points and 12 assists in WSU's win. (WSU Athletics)

PULLMAN – Before the season, Washington State coach Kyle Smith predicted “distribution” to be a key strength of this new-look Cougars squad.

In WSU’s season opener, a newcomer put together the best passing performance by a Cougar in recent memory.

Transfer guard Justin Powell dazzled with the ball in his hands, doling out 12 assists – the most by a Coug since Reggie Moore recorded 12 versus Portland State in 2009 – and WSU used a well-rounded effort to cruise to an 83-61 win over Texas State on Monday at Beasley Coliseum.

“He’s an elite passer and pretty close to being an elite shooter,” Smith said of Powell, who shot 3 of 5 from beyond the arc and registered 14 points to go with five rebounds. Powell committed just one turnover for a Coug team that totaled 19 assists and 12 giveaways.

“We really upgraded there (passing the ball). That’s kind of our identity,” the fourth-year coach continued.

Powell sparked WSU early in the second half, taking command of the offense and spearheading a scoring run that resulted in a double-digit lead.

The 6-foot-6 Tennessee transfer spread the touches, driving into the paint and flipping no-look assists out to the perimeter, and dishing a handful of pinpoint passes to star big man Mouhamed Gueye in the frontcourt for easy dunks.

“It’s great when I have (Gueye) next to me,” Powell said. “Whatever they gave us, we took. I had guys finish everything for me, which makes it easier.

“It felt good kinda going back to my roots a little bit, which is having the ball in my hands, being able to distribute, being in a great offense.”

WSU fashioned an 18-point advantage after seven minutes in the second period. The Bobcats trimmed the lead to 13 points, capitalizing on WSU’s foul trouble, but Powell and fellow transfer guard Jabe Mullins responded with 3-pointers and the Cougars surged to a 10-0 run to all but seal the result.

Gueye, a sophomore NBA draft prospect, looked the part. He totaled 18 points on 8 of 12 from the field and snagged a career-high 13 rebounds as the Cougars won the battle on the glass 39-25.

“Really proud of the way Mo played,” Smith said. “That’s the way he’s been playing. He’s made another nice step forward. Just confidence-wise, I think he is going to get better throughout the season.

“I just know it’s nice to have a guy that gets you dunks.”

It certainly helps to have a high-level passer who can find Gueye on pick-and-rolls with such accuracy.

“(Powell) makes the game easier,” Gueye said. “As a big man, you want to get the ball a lot and he makes sure he does. … It’s gonna help my game and help the team.”

Senior forward DJ Rodman drained four 3s and scored 13 of his 16 points in the first half, providing a crucial lift for the Cougars during an inconsistent stretch of play in the middle part of the opening period.

“He’s our one senior. He’s gone through some wars with us,” Smith said of Rodman, who started in place of injured forward Andrej Jakimovski. “He’s a really heady player on both sides of the ball. He gets you tough rebounds and he had a big-time block.”

WSU’s first-game jitters disappeared late in the first half. The Cougars settled into a groove, taking care of the ball and earning free-throw opportunities to open a seven-point lead at the break.

“We got a little off-kilter, couldn’t score for a few possessions,” Smith said. “Then we just didn’t turn it over. We had four turnovers at the half. … If you don’t turn it over, you’re going to have a good chance to build a lead.”

Mullins contributed 13 points in an impressive Cougar debut, shooting 6-for-6 from the foul line.

WSU shot 52.7% from the field and 9 of 20 from deep as a team. The Bobcats, the reigning Sun Belt champions, hit 46% of their field-goal attempts and were held to a 3-for-12 mark from deep. Standout guard Mason Harrell finished with 17 points, with only five coming in the second half as WSU’s zone defense clamped down on Texas State’s scorers. Meanwhile, the Cougar offense found a ball-sharing rhythm.

“It’s nice, offensively, when the ball can move,” Smith said.

Last year, the Cougars logged low assist numbers. They leaned on defense, rebounding and athleticism at the post positions. This season, WSU is an assist-minded outfit. In its opener, the team consistently looked for the extra pass.

“There’s some fun plays,” Smith added. “I think there’s a lot more coming.”

Up next, the Cougars will take on Boise State at 4 p.m. Saturday at Idaho Central Arena.

Personnel notes

Seven players made their WSU debuts, including true freshmen Dylan Darling, Adrame Diongue, Mael Hamon-Crespin and Kymany Houinsou. Darling and Diongue are both dealing with nagging injuries, so they played fewer than five minutes apiece.

Smith expects Jakimovski to miss “a couple of weeks” with a toe injury.

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