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Bonton scores 19 as WSU falls at Santa Clara, 70-62

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Cold shooting second half dooms Cougs.

Seattle v Washington State Photo by William Mancebo/Getty Images

Following an inspiring season-opening victory, the Washington State Cougars came back down to earth a little bit, suffering their first loss of the season at the hands of the Santa Clara Broncos, 70-62.

The Cougars fell to 1-1 overall.

This was always going to be a tough matchup for WSU — the Broncos are an experienced bunch that should make some noise in the WCC, plus it was on the road — but the Cougs held their own in the first half, thanks to some solid 3-point shooting and excellent offensive rebounding.

WSU was able to use the same kind of early offense it had used against Seattle to try and make up for a lack of execution in the halfcourt, and it largely worked; the game was set to be tied heading into the break, but a defensive breakdown led to a Santa Clara 3-pointer just before the buzzer, and WSU trailed 41-38 after the first half.

The Broncos adjusted, however, cutting off fast break opportunities and putting lots of pressure on the ball and aggressively denying passing lanes. The result was an offense that was reduced to a ton of isolation with players who had a hard time getting to the rim against the taller Broncos, and instead repeatedly settled for low-percentage jumpers — which they repeatedly missed, shooting just 28% in the second half, including 1-of-13 from 3-point range. The Broncos also shut down the offensive glass for the Cougs, allowing just one offensive rebound after the break.

The decisive stretch came about five minutes into the second half. With WSU trailing by just two, Santa Clara went on a 15-4 “run” — if you can call it that, since it spanned nearly nine minutes — putting the Cougs in a 13-point hole. Included in that was a 6:31 scoreless drought for WSU, which never got closer than six points the rest of the way.

The Cougars’ next game is on Sunday against Idaho State.

Three Thoughts

The offense is, uh, a work in progress. After two games, the Cougs are 278th nationally in shooting (43 eFG%) and 300th in free throw rate (FTA/FGA). In game one, their efficiency was buoyed by a ton of offensive rebounds and a dearth of turnovers. The formula was largely the same in the first half tonight, even as the turnovers ticked up. Once Santa Clara shored that up, it was extremely tough sledding for the Cougars, who don’t look to have a good feel yet for what they want to do in the halfcourt.

It’s nights like tonight where they really needed CJ Elleby to bail them out, but he had what will probably end up being one of his worst games of the season: He fouled out with just 10 points on 4-of-14 shooting, including five turnovers and only two rebounds — in 29 minutes. Isaac Bonton tried to pick up the slack, but he struggled as a high volume scorer, pouring in 19 points but needing 20 shot attempts to do it. Third in attempts was Jervae Robinson, which ... yeah, Jervae Robinson shouldn’t ever really be third on your team in shot attempts.

It’s certainly no surprise that they struggled with Santa Clara’s defense; that’s long been a calling card of Herb Sendek teams, and his team returned virtually everyone from last year. But it underscores how early it is in the process of transitioning to a new coach and how far these guys have to go.

Size is going to be an issue. The Cougs’ biggest player is Jeff Pollard at 6-foot-9 and 240 pounds. After that, Deion James is 6-8/220 and Aljaz Kunc is 6-8/198. Tonight, all it took was one legit big man — 6-11/210 Guglielmo Caruso — for Santa Clara to control the paint, particularly in the second half.

We are going to see much better big men than Guglielmo Caruso in the Pac-12. Gulp.

Minimal impact from grad transfers. Jaylen Shead and Deion James were brought in to have an immediate impact. Shead is starting at point guard, but his offensive rating is a paltry 85 (100ish is average), thanks largely to a high turnover rate and low assist rate. Presuming he was healthy — he took a bit of a knock on a rebound and played sparingly after that — he ceded most of the second half playing time to Jervae Robinson

James, meanwhile, played just five minutes, recording two points and no rebounds. (He might have been injured; he appeared to have a limp in the postgame hand shake line.) His offensive rating is now just 80.

Both will need to play better, particularly on offense, if this team is going to end up being better than we expected.