The laptop that powers kenpom.com’s forecasts saw the Broncs as a slight favorite, but laptops can’t account for things like cross-country travel and extra motivation for the home team, and that’s exactly what seemed to make the difference in the contest: WSU looked like it was itching to prove the 95-90 loss to Montana State back on Dec. 8 was a fluke, while the Broncs departed New Jersey at 4 a.m. ET on Monday only to play later that night in a game that tipped off at 10 p.m. ET.
Both Robert Franks and Marvin Cannon had spectacular offensive games for the Cougs (now 6-3 overall), but the story of this one really was the WSU defense. Despite playing in front of practically nobody at Beasley Coliseum, the Cougars brought the defensive energy and held the fatigued Broncs — playing their second game in three days with the aforementioned cross-country trip thrown in — to a well-below-average offensive performance (0.94 points per possession).
Both teams love to run, and the game was up-and-down early with each team firing off threes with impunity. It was tight at first, but then Rider (4-4) shot its way out to a seven-point lead, 22-15, midway through the opening period after WSU strangely moved to a 2-3 zone it hasn’t played much this season. The defensive setup likely was designed to limit Rider’s penetration, but all it really did was give the Broncs a bunch of open looks from three and offensive rebounds — both of which they generally excel at, anyway.
The Cougs moved back to man-to-man, and WSU went on a dominant 23-2 run over the next six-plus minutes, containing the Broncs’ dribble drives and contesting three-point attempts. The spurt featured scoring from five different players, and when it was over, that seven-point deficit was a 14-point lead.
The teams traded buckets over the remainder of the first half, but then WSU came out of the locker room determined to put the game away. It was an 11-0 run that featured this:
All told, the Cougars had outscored the Broncs 41-13 over the course 13 minutes, and with a 21-point lead, the game was more or less decided.
Of course, Rider didn’t go away; the Broncs turned up their trademark defensive intensity, securing an absurd 15 turnovers from WSU in the second half alone to whittle the margin down to around 10 for most of the last 10 minutes of the game — including a butt-puckering seven points with 2:40 to go. But WSU took advantage of Rider’s propensity to foul, making 29 of their 36 second half trips to the free throw line to pull away down the stretch.
WSU would score 39 points in all from the free throw line, a new program record.
All those free throws were indicative of the weirdness of the game offensively for WSU. Consider Cannon, making his third start of the season with senior stalwart Vionte Daniels out with a concussion. The 6-foot-5 juco transfer oozes athleticism, and he put that to good use, repeatedly making himself dangerous around the basket. He scored his 23 points on just five field goal attempts thanks to making 15 of his 16 attempts at the line.
“Coach (Ernie) Kent preached that them guys foul a lot, so we just tried to drive the ball and try to get fouls,” Cannon said. “We practice free throws every day, we practice free throws a lot so it just came second nature.”
Oh — since it would be a shame to waste it, here’s another of his dunks:
The real offensive star was Franks, though, who continues his monster season. He finished with 25 points (on just 12 shots), 12 rebounds and five assists and just one turnover. Freshman CJ Elleby had another nice game with 18 points, seven rebounds and three steals, while Carter Skaggs, also making his first start of the season, contributed 12 points and five rebounds.
Rider was led by 24 points from Jordan Allen, who hit seven three-pointers. Rider took more threes than they generally do — teams really can’t resist shooting them against WSU — but hit just 36 percent of them, well below the Broncs’ season mark of 42 percent. Of particular note was the job the Cougars did on Rider’s dangerous point guard, Stevie Jordan: He had just 11 points and two assists with four turnovers and was never a real factor in the game.
The Cougs also held Rider to just 13 fast break points while scoring 32 themselves, and also more than held their own on the defensive glass thanks to surprising performances from Skaggs (five defensive rebounds) and Jeff Pollard (four in 12 minutes of action).
In a season that’s been up-and-down, it was a real nice win for WSU. The guys were ready to go in an environment that can sometimes lead to lethargy — lots of time off, cavernous arena, better-than-you-might-realize opponent from an obscure east coast conference — and for that, they deserve a ton of credit.
The Cougs will next be in action against SIU Edwardsville on Wednesday at Beasley Coliseum. (Yes, that’s a real school.)