After a week off for finals, the rested and refreshed WSU Cougars proved to be far too much for Pepperdine, sending the Waves back to Malibu with a 78-61 defeat.
The Cougars improved to 5-4 and have their first back-to-back victories since the opening games of the season.
For only the second time all year, WSU was led in scoring by someone other than DaVonte Lacy, who finished with just nine points -- the first time all season he failed to reach double digits. Instead, it was the resurgence of Royce Woolridge that led the way.
For the first time this season, Woolridge -- who has been slowed by injuries -- artfully probed the defense as he did so often at the end of last season. Not content to merely settle for threes, he repeatedly found gaps that allowed him to snake his way to the rim, where he converted six of his seven twos while shooting nine free throws. A made three brought his total to 20 points with four assists in what easily was his best performance of the year.
Que Johnson also continues to show that he might be ready for an increased role on the team, shooting 6-of-11 overall with a pair of threes to post a career high 14 points. He split minutes with starter Dexter Kernich-Drew early, but as Pepperdine tried to crawl back into the game, it was Johnson who logged the minutes down the stretch, finishing with 26 minutes to Kernich-Drew's 14.
Leaning on Johnson late instead of Kernich-Drew was part of a couple of interesting shifts in strategy by WSU in the second half.
The Cougs had their way with Pepperdine in the interior in the first half, hitting 15 of 20 two-pointers. Some of that was because of steals that led to fast break opportunities, but not all. Undeterred, the Cougs -- as they generally do -- went ahead and shot 13 threes anyway. They hit only three of them, and the Waves were lucky to escape to the locker room with just a 15-point deficit.
But in the second half, it was a different story, as Pepperdine made a couple of small runs to get the deficit into single digits. Rather an continue to bomb away from deep, the Cougs focused on exploiting the interior of the Waves' defense by shooting 10-of-18 from two and also shot a whopping 21 free throws. Just five of WSU's 23 shots were from beyond the arc, and as a result, Pepperdine never was able to seriously threaten the Cougar lead.
Another pleasant development in the second half was the emergence of Josh Hawkinson. Starting center Jordan Railey -- who had a nice game in his own right with 10 points, five rebounds and three blocks -- fouled out with about eight minutes to go. Rather than try to navigate the stretch with Will DiIorio (as he has done in the past), Ken Bone decided to roll with the freshman, who played well. Hawkinson grabbed four defensive rebounds in his 13 minutes -- which works out to about 30 percent of the available Pepperdine misses while he was on the floor, a superb number -- and was active with a block and a steal.
With Woolridge and Johnson doing the heavy lifting with the scoring, the defensive contributions of Hawkinson, D.J. Shelton and Junior Longrus were enough to help the Cougs cruise to victory.
And as for Lacy? Despite the dearth of points -- he finished with nine points on 4-of-7 shooting -- he still was in the middle of much of the action, grabbing eight rebounds, four steals, and dishing out two assists.
Lest we ignore the defense, the Cougs allowed just 0.88 points per possession to the Waves playing mostly man-to-man defense. We won't get too excited, as it's the sort of defensive performance we've come to expect from
WSU now travels to the Tri-Cities for a matchup with Division II San Francisco State before returning to Pullman on Saturday to face UTEP in what will be a tougher test than most fans realize.
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