PULLMAN – There’s a certain fluidity to Myles Rice’s game. When he dribbles across the Washington State logo, the Cougars’ burgeoning redshirt freshman keeping the ball on a string, he does it calmly, like he knows something the rest of the arena does not.
When he crosses over into a mid-range jumper, Rice looks smoother than a stick of butter. When he gets to the basket, he tends to glide, like he’s levitating.
When he gets hot, as he did in Washington State’s 82-72 win over Eastern Washington on Monday night, he looks like someone took a torch to his hands.
Rice, who totaled 28 points, canned each of his first six 3-pointers. He made 9 of his 15 shots. He was efficient all night, keeping the Cougars in front the whole way, even when the Eagles made things interesting with a second-half push.
“My dad texted me after the game,” Rice said. “He said, I saw you took a couple heat checks, and he said, try to pull back on those a little bit. It’s one of those things where you know you’re in the zone, you believe every one’s going in. And I thought they were gonna go in. I didn’t think they were too outside of the offense.”
Washington State, 5-1 and winners of three straight, was lucky Rice was so hot. The Cougars had trouble scoring otherwise. Eastern Washington clawed to within two late in the second half, threatening to win its third straight game at Beasley Coliseum. The Eagles drew to within 58-56 on a triple, prompting WSU coach Kyle Smith to call timeout as the EWU sideline erupted.
From there, WSU ran off 10 straight: an and-one from forward Andrej Jakimovski, two free throws from Kymany Houinsou, a triple from Jakimovski and a post move for two from forward Oscar Cluff, who totaled 12 points and seven rebounds. That helped WSU hold off EWU for a slice of revenge for the Eagles’ win in the NIT last year.
“As your season goes on, there’s certain guys that start to step into certain roles,” WSU coach Kyle Smith said. “I thought Andrej is a guy (who) even though he didn’t shoot the ball well tonight, he made a big and-one and hit a big three, and you could tell he just didn’t lose his swagger. He kept swinging.”
Fortunately for Washington State, which got an uncharacteristic 11 points on 12 shots from Jakimovski, it got enough production from its posts. True freshman Rueben Chinyelu, who continues to push for more playing time, carded 11 points and five rebounds. That added to WSU’s total of 15 offensive rebounds, turning those into 21 second-chance points.
That has been the Cougs’ new approach this year: use its size to punish teams underneath. So far, it’s paying off. WSU totaled 36 points in the paint and got 10 points and seven rebounds from transfer forward Isaac Jones, who is showing he isn’t just a plodding post scorer. He’s an athlete, an energy guy, a two-way force who pushes defenses to adjust around his athleticism.
On Monday night, the only problem for Washington State was its foul trouble. Jakimovski was called for four fouls, and Houinsou fouled out. Rice and Cluff each had three. Smith couldn’t always keep his best lineups out there because his guys had too many fouls.
The other part of that problem for the Cougs: The Eagles got real production at the free-throw line. They posted a 18-for-23 mark at the stripe. Forward Casey Jones attempted 13 by his lonesome. If WSU limits its fouls, maybe EWU has a tougher time staying in the game, especially in the late stages.
But the Cougars offset those issues by keeping the Eagles at bay. In the final minutes, Rice missed on a drive to the basket, so Cluff cleaned it up with an offensive rebound and putback. After that, Rice polished off his outing with a tough fadeaway jumper in the key, widening his team’s lead back to nine as the clock ticked near one minute.
For Smith and the Cougs, that may have been the most encouraging part of this win, the second game of a five-game homestand: They just kept responding. Even in that stretch, when Rice and Cluff recorded baskets, the Eagles kept the pressure on. Jake Kyman nailed a triple, Lejuan Watts scored on a layup and Cedric Coward connected on a pair of free throws.
Then, with under a minute left, Washington State started to smell it. The Cougs offset a bad turnover by getting a stop, which prompted EWU to foul Rice, who went to the line for two free throws to put it away with some 30 seconds left.
From there, it was a foul game. Kyman responded with a trey and EWU called a timeout, but Rice was fouled again and went to the line for two.
Washington State gets a string of home games to follow this one. WSU hosts Portland State on Saturday afternoon, then UC Riverside next week. Add the Cougs’ home matchup with Grambling on Dec. 10 and they’ll have a chance to head into its two-game neutral-site slate with eight wins.
For now, the Cougars will take a win over the team that ended their last season in March.
The Eagles’ tough road continues at USC on Wednesday. It will be the sixth Power Five opponent EWU has played in seven games.
“They made a little post talking about, they’re gonna make it three in a row here,” Rice said. “It wasn’t my sole mission to go out there and score 28 points, or make as many shots as I did, but the goal was to get the win. And that’s what motivated me and the guys tonight. We weren’t gonna allow that to happen, not again on our floor.”