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WSU uses size advantage to beat Rhode Island in HOF Tip-Off third-place game, 78-57

Washington State forward Rueben Chinyelu, right, fights for a rebound during Saturday’s game against Mississippi State.  (Courtesy of WSU Athletics)

PULLMAN – Washington State might have something brewing with this new approach.

The Cougars, who in years prior prided themselves on spreading the floor and playing spurts of positionless basketball, are trying something different this year: They’re playing big. They’re using their size advantages. They’re playing basketball like the year is 1992.

If a 78-57 win over Rhode Island on Sunday afternoon is any indication, WSU’s new strategy has some teeth. With this victory, the Cougars took third place at the Hall of Fame Tip-off in Uncasville, Connecticut, and they are now off to a 3-1 start.

The receipt came in the numbers. Transfer forward Isaac Jones led all scorers with 21 points, and he did it efficiently, connecting on 8 of 11 shots – most around the basket. WSU won the rebounding battle, 36-28, and it tallied 52 points in the paint. So stifling was the Cougs’ defense that in the second half, the Rams shot just 30% from the field.

Late in the game, around the eight-minute mark, WSU guard Myles Rice left with an apparent injury. He watched the rest of the game from the bench. That came after his outing in Saturday’s loss to Mississippi State: 21 points on 8-for-18 shooting.

On Sunday, many of the Cougs’ best performers were their post players. True freshman Rueben Chinyelu, a 6-foot-11 true freshman, registered 12 points and six rebounds, using his long frame to back defenders down and flip in shots around the rim. Six-foot-7 guard Kymany Houinsou tallied a career-high 13 points, pairing that with a block and a steal.

Even junior college transfer Oscar Cluff, a 6-foot-11 center, put up seven points, five rebounds, two blocks and one steal. In 16 minutes, he was a plus-20 in the box score, which is a fancy way of saying the obvious: When he took the floor, he changed the game on both ends, tracking down loose balls and burying defenders underneath.

That helped Washington State control nearly the whole game. Rhode Island’s last lead came around the 15-minute mark of the first half. From there, the Cougs used a short run to retake the lead, which they held on to the rest of the way. Shortly before halftime, Rhode Island pulled back within three, but that’s when Jones found a cutting Houinsou for a dunk – then Houinsou splashed a long ball for a 39-32 lead at the intermission.

In the second half, WSU seized its first double-digit lead with a 3-pointer from senior Andrej Jakimovski, who carded five points on 2-for-7 shooting. The Rams responded with six straight points, so the Cougs answered with five of their own, getting a free throw from Jaylen Wells, then four straight from Chinyelu, restoring a 10-point lead with 10 minutes to play.

That’s about when Washington State really put the game away. On a 13-2 run, the Cougs got baskets from Wells, Jones and Cluff, opening up a 70-51 lead. In that stretch, Jones faked a dribble-handoff, drove into the lane, took a body bump, then rose up and threw one down, an enormous dunk that illustrated one thing above all: WSU is fully intent on playing bully-ball this winter.

On Sunday, that shone through most on defense. The Cougars finished with seven blocks. They parlayed 11 offensive rebounds into 14 second-chance points. They didn’t have much luck from beyond the arc, connecting on just three of 17 triples, but they made up for that by punishing the Rams down low.

Washington State also got 35 points from its bench, which might be the second-most important development to come from this win. Chinyelu and Houinsou combined for 25. The other 10 came from Wells, who tallied eight, and freshman guard Isaiah Watts, who added two points in the final 10 seconds.

WSU returns to action on Friday, hosting Utah Tech to kick off a five-game homestand.