The Washington State Cougars picked up their best win of the season to date by beating the UTEP Miners, 84-69, on Sunday at Beasley Coliseum.
WSU was led by Josh Hawkinson with 17 points, 14 rebounds and two blocks.
The game started off as an entertaining affair, with the Cougars leading UTEP 39-33 at the break thanks to a hot shooting first half. And nobody exemplified that better than Derrien King.
The little-used sophomore forward -- a junior college transfer who had played just 12 minutes all season -- was 3-for-3 from beyond the arc, the last of them a deep 3 with the shot clock winding down.
As a team, the Cougars hit 6-of-8 from beyond the arc in the first half, on their way to an absurd 70.8 effective field goal percentage. It helped mitigate the fact that the offense was again turnover prone, as WSU struggled with routine entry passes and gave away the ball nine times in 35 possessions.
But the defense that had been largely absent in a midweek loss to Idaho returned to form, limiting the Miners to just 0.91 points per possession.
The defense continued into the second half, but the focus of the offensive attack shifted, as Hawkinson and center Conor Clifford went to work in the paint. Hawkinson generally worked the midrange area, while Clifford was a monster in the post, scoring 15 points with an array of moves around the basket.
UTEP had been one of the better teams in the country at 2-point defense (just 43 percent allowed), but that posed little problem for the Cougars, who finished the game 18-of-31 (58 percent) inside the arc. Hawkinson, Clifford and Ike Iroegbu combined to go 14-of-17 themselves.
The game was more or less put out of reach with about 10 minutes to go when an Iroegbu layup ended an 11-1 run to put the Cougars up by 16. From there, it was a parade of free throws, as a fairly entertaining game more or less ground to a complete halt, as some overzealous refereeing -- with an assist from Tim Floyd's "Hack-an-Izundu" -- led to a whole lot of attempts from the line.
In all, the Cougars would attempt 30 free throws in the second half alone, converting enough of them (19) to ensure the Miners could never mount a serious threat down the stretch.
Charles Callison is a serious ball hawk. I don't think I've paid enough attention to this so far this year, but after five more steals this year, Callison now ranks 11th in the country in steal percentage. An increased turnover percentage is part of the reason the defense is improved, and Callison is providing some serious value there. (That's to say nothing of his 7 assists against just 2 turnovers in this one.)
King should be in line for more minutes. It seems as if this should go without saying when a guy nails a trio of 3s in his first extended action of the season, but finding King minutes probably isn't as easy as it sounds. He got the run he got this afternoon because Que Johnson found himself in foul trouble -- together, they combined for 16 points on 5-of-6 shooting from 3 in the first half (not bad!) -- and then Kent rode the hot hand with more minutes in the second half.
King was a bit of a liability on the defensive end, which Kent compensated for by deploying some zone (which also helped protect his foul-addled big men), but he showed enough of that good-looking stroke to warrant some spot duty as a shooter going forward.
Ny Redding is not currently a viable option at point guard. Kent had been reluctant to play Iroegbu at the point this season, giving Redding the backup minutes at the point when Callison came off the floor. Today, Redding didn't enter the game until there were about 10 minutes remaining. His final line: 4 minutes, 1 point, 0 assists, 1 turnover. (Fortunately for him, his stat line doesn't reflect the man he lost in his zone responsibilities who nailed a three.)
Redding's offensive rating has sunk all the way 73, easily lowest on the team (an average player has a 102 rating), and his turnover rate is more than double his assist rate. The offense stalls when the ball hits his hands. And tonight seemed to be the first concession from Kent that he might need to change plans.
It will be interesting to see if Kent uses the final tune-up on Friday against Texas State as one last gasp effort to get something out of Redding, or instead to solidify the rotation he's going to use going forward as the competition increases.