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Behind strong start and big game from Andrej Jakimovski, WSU routs Idaho in season-opener

Washington State's Andre Jakimovski handles the ball against Idaho's EJ Neal on Monday at Beasley Coliseum in Pullman.  (Courtesy of WSU Athletics)

PULLMAN — Joseph Yesufu smiled as he bent down to put his shoe back on. He had just submitted his biggest accomplishment of the game, forcing a miss on an Idaho guard with his shoe in his hand, so during a stoppage in Washington State’s 82-59 win, the transfer guard slid it back on his foot.

Somehow, Yesufu had lost his shoe guarding on the perimeter, but the play went on. So Yesufu grabbed the shoe. He navigated a screen with it in his hand. Then he got a stop.

“That’s who Joe is, man,” WSU guard Myles Rice said. “He’s a dawg.”

Turns out, Washington State didn’t even need both shoes to earn a season-opening rout over Idaho in the revival of the Battle of the Palouse on Monday night.

The Cougs got 21 points from Andrej Jakimovski, 13 points and 9 rebounds from Vandals transfer Isaac Jones and 13 from Rice, taking control with an 18-2 run in the first half and cruising the rest of the way.

“I thought we did some really good things,” WSU coach Kyle Smith said, “and we were good on the glass and that’s what it looks like you’ve got the advantage there. We gotta take advantage.”

Good luck finding much fault in WSU’s outing in this one. The hosts shot a smooth 54% from the field. They outrebounded the Vandals, 45-26. They lost only 10 turnovers. They also got points from nine players, rolling out 11 in total.

That’s important for a Washington State team whose biggest challenge this season will be meshing nine newcomers with just one returning starter, Jakimovski. The Cougs lost a lot over the offseason, bidding farewell to current pros Mo Gueye and Justin Powell plus transfers like DJ Rodman, TJ Bamba, Dishon Jackson and Carlos Rosario.

Much of this WSU season will be dictated by how the new guys fare, so here is a sampling from Monday evening. Yesufu, a transfer from Kansas, totaled 5 points and 5 rebounds. Rueben Chinyelu, a true freshman from Nigeria, posted 8 points and 8 rebounds. Myles Rice, making his college debut after two years on the shelf, paired 13 points with 4 rebounds and 3 assists.

As far as first games go, Rice submitted a fine one. His complete line: 13 points on 5-for-9 shooting (0-for-2 from deep), 4 rebounds, 3 assists, 4 fouls and 1 turnover. He looked sleek gliding to the basket for layups. He had a bounce in his step, the ball on a string, the look of a guy who deserved the start in his first college game.

By now, we know Rice’s story: He redshirted in 2021-22, then spent the following year receiving chemotherapy treatment for non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, a cancer that affects the body’s germ-fighting immune system. Rice completed his final treatment in March, and the best news for him and WSU might be that if you didn’t know that, you would never have guessed with the way he played on Monday.

“It was kinda surreal,” Rice said. “It’s been two years coming, just staying true to who I am. Being that energy guy for the team, just being the guy that always has a smile on his face, no matter what hardships he goes through. I had to kinda calm myself down today earlier. I had a lot of emotions. I just made sure I stayed around my family, stayed around my team.”

Rice also played with painted fingernails, which told a story themselves. On his right hand he painted four ribbons for people in his life affected by cancer. On his left hand he painted an acronym, AYN1, that he came up with during his chemotherapy treatments: All You Need Is 1.

The ribbons on Rice’s right hand stood for these people: Pink for his aunt, affected by breast cancer. Lavender for his mother’s boss, diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Purple for himself. Turquoise for another of his aunts, who had ovarian cancer.

“This is a symbol so I can show my respect,” Rice said, “and show my creativity as well.”

“Who knows how you’re gonna react after two years without playing, what he went through last year. He handled it in stride,” Smith said. “He was a little emotional in the locker room afterward, but not much. I think he’s been playing well in the two scrimmages. He had a little couple ups and downs today, but he was overall very good.”

Washington State, which hosts Prairie View A&M on Friday evening, also turned in a solid outing on defense. WSU limited Idaho to just 35% shooting and 20% from beyond the arc. The Vandals’ leading scorer was Quinn Denker, who tallied 12 points, and second place went to forward Kyson Rose, who needed 11 shots to score 9 points.

That will play for WSU, but Smith may have liked his team’s six blocks even better. That’s a sign his team’s new approach, a big-centric lineup, is finding its way, at least on defense. The rest may take time to develop, but hey, getting stops with one shoe isn’t a bad start.