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WSU basketball opens season with 69-65 win over Montana State

Cougs hold on despite a furious rally by the Bobcats. What did we learn?

NCAA Basketball: Utah at Washington State
Derrien King led the Cougs with 22 points.
James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

It wasn’t always a work of art, but season openers rarely are, and the WSU Cougars played well enough for long enough stretches to hold off a late rally from Montana State and defeat the Bobcats, 69-65.

WSU ran out to an 11-0 lead in the first five minutes, and really controlled the game from there until the final few minutes, leading by as many as 19 in the second half. But MSU closed to within three twice in the final minute, and WSU needed timely free throws down the stretch to hold them off, which they got.

Rather than full recaps this year, I’m going to give you three takeaways from the game. So here we go!

1: Run and fun is back again!

Last season, the Cougars slowed their pace to a virtual crawl in an effort to combat games in which they were overmatched and quickly getting out of control. As a result, not only were the Cougs losing — they were impossibly boring to watch while doing it.

Ernie Kent promised to get the Cougs back to a typical Ernie Kent identity, and that promise was fulfilled tonight. The number of possessions was in the mid-70s, and WSU took every possible opportunity it could get to run on the break. It wasn’t always pretty, contributing a bit to No. 2, but it sure was a lot more fun to watch than last year’s slog. Kudos!

2: The turnover problem has not gone away.

The Cougars were one of the worst teams in the country last season at taking care of the basketball. There was some hope that installing freshman Malachi Flynn at the point — taking the ball out of the hands of Ike Iroegbu and Charles Callison — would help on this front, but Flynn struggled greatly: He finished with five turnovers against just two assists.

It probably was too much to expect him to be awesome out of the gate, but that’s partially on Ernie Kent, who has talked up Flynn at every turn. Most of the turnovers appeared to come from earnestness, so hopefully he can rein that in.

The same can’t be said for the rest of the team, though, which accounted for the other 12 turnovers. Iroegbu and Hawkinson each had three, and that’s just not good enough from your senior leaders.

WSU outshot the Bobcats in effective field goal percentage, 48 to 37, but it was the 17 turnovers — along with 14 offensive rebounds conceded — that kept it from being the runaway contest it should have been.

3: Derrien King looked real good.

The 6-foot-6 wing scored 22 points on 6-of-12 shooting, including 3-of-6 from 3-point range and 7-of-9 on free throws. That’s pretty great! He looked confident shooting the ball, but also was excellent out in transition. He also had five rebounds and two turnovers, which can be excused for the night, given his big contribution.

Other performances worth noting? Flynn’s turnovers were obviously problematic, but he did chip in 10 points and 9 rebounds; Hawkinson did what he does with 16 points and 13 rebounds; and Iroegbu did pick up 8 points and 5 assists to offset the turnovers.

BONUS: The offensive rebounding apocalypse did not come to pass.

OK, we’ll go with four takeaways today. Kent was so desperate to stop his team’s horrendous transition defense, that WSU actually was practicing a strategy to run everyone back on defense the moment the ball left a Cougar shooter’s hand.

Thankfully, WSU didn’t do that in this game. They certainly didn’t crash the glass with abandon, but they did pick up 8 offensive rebounds.

However, they did do what he said they would on free throws — there was nobody in the lane.

Next up: The Cougs take on Central Washington (yes, it’s a game that actually counts) on Tuesday at 7 p.m. in Kennewick. The game is on Pac-12 Network.