Last night's game between Washington State and Stanford wasn't for those who are a fan of stifling defense, particularly in the first five and last twenty minutes of the game. The Cougars scored on every possession before the under-sixteen media timeout and jumped out to a 15-10 lead. Stanford came out firing in the second half on a quick 13-2 run to build what felt like an insurmountable deficit at the time.
Obviously the deficit was no problem on a night when the Cougs, led by Faisal Aden's 33 points on 21 uses, shred apart a normally excellent Stanford defense for 54 second-half points. In the end, WSU put up 1.27 points per possession for the whole game, second best on the season behind the performance against Santa Clara. The second half was most likely the most efficient Wazzu has been all season, as they scored 1.59 points per possession. That came against a Stanford team that had been giving up 0.90 all season.
Free throws were obviously a huge part of the offensive success, as WSU hit 27 of 29 as a team. The 29 free throw attempts against 48 field goal attempts is good for a 60.4 free throw rate, nearly double what the Cardinal had been allowing. Aden was the biggest reason for that, as he attempted 13 free throws on the night. Coming into the game, he had taken just 27 free throws all season. Stanford was guarding him tightly on the perimeter and repeatedly falling for his pump fake, allowing him to get inside and throw his body around.
Shooting well is something that WSU has been able to all season, and Stanford doesn't rely on tough shooting defense to be effective, so the Cougars 56 eFG% is one of the least surprising numbers to come out of last night. The key was how well the Cougs were able to avoid turnovers and limit second-chance opportunities.
More on that after the jump.
In a game played at 64 possessions, WSU only turned the ball over seven times. Aden didn't turn it over at all. As mentioned in the preview, Stanford has forced a high number of turnovers, but doesn't get many via steals. They force the opposition into making poor decisions. WSU didn't do that and on a night when they were able to shoot so well from the field and get to the line so frequently, keeping possession of the ball allowed for the offense to be super efficient.
This game was certainly not won on the defensive end, as Stanford put up their second-highest efficiency in Pac-12 play. Ken Bone admitted that WSU was fortunate to have some of Stanford's best shooters struggle from the outside. Sophomore Aaron Bright made just 1/8 from three, and he came in shooting 46%.
However, the low shooting percentages may also have been a product of WSU's zone forcing Stanford into playing a way in which they were uncomfortable. On the year, including last night, 34% of the Cardinal's shots have come from three. Yesterday, it was 56%. Their players aren't used to taking that many jumpers, presumably they typically search for better shots and only shoot wide-open threes. Last night, the three was the first option and they struggled (even when the shots were wide-open).
With all those misses, it was vital for WSU to perform better on the defensive glass. The first half was more of the same, as Stanford grabbed 7 of 18 offensive rebounding opportunities, for a 39 OR%, just around their season average. Josh Owens was giving the Cougs plenty of trouble inside, as he pulled down two offensive boards and tipped away others.
The second half saw a change. After getting dominated by Owens for the first 25 minutes, WSU made a conscious effort to deny him the ball and locate him on rebounds. The result was just three field goal attempts and three free throw attempts in the second half, most of which came early. Overall, Stanford grabbed only 6 of 19 offensive boards in the last twenty minutes, dropping them to a 35 OR%, or below their season average. For this Cougar team, holding any opponent to below their season average in offensive rebounding is cause for celebration.
This was an exciting win for the Cougars and their fans. There are parts of the game that were certainly unsustainable, particularly in Aden's ability to hit tough shots with regularity and his high free throw rate. WSU also shouldn't expect a pair of opposing players who combine to shoot around 45% from three to suddenly go 2 for 15 every game. But there were also parts that are encouraging, particularly turnovers. WSU's turnover rate has been trending down since it was a problem early in the season, even as competition has been a little tougher in conference play.
Should we expect the Cougs to come out and play like this all time? Probably not. However, it is good to know that these types of performances can happen and that makes following the team just a little bit more interesting.