A number of times this season, the Washington State Cougars had put together a strong first half only to watch the game slip away in the final period — including Monday’s opening-round game in the Cayman Islands Classic against the Nebraska Cornhuskers.
On Tuesday, the Cougs finished the job, outscoring the Old Dominion Monarchs by 14 points in the second half to cruise to a 66-50 victory and move to 3-3 on the season.
The unexpected star in this one was Marvin Cannon, who had 14 points, 7 rebounds, 2 assists, 2 blocks and a steal in a season-high 30 minutes. It was considered a major boost to the program when he decided not to transfer, but he struggled to find his place within the rotation over the first five games, often looking lost when he was on the floor. Today, he was aggressive and confident with the ball in his hands.
On the heels of the dispiriting loss to the Cornhuskers, Smith decided to go smaller — and more athletic. Jeff Pollard and Aljaz Kunc — the frontcourt starters — combined for just 33 minutes, while reserves Tony Miller and Volodymyr Markovetskyy combined for 23 minutes off the bench.
Those minutes shifted to the guards, as Cannon, Jaylen Shead, Isaac Bonton and Jervae Robinson all played 24 or more minutes, while CJ Elleby played 31. (DJ Rodman and Noah Williams, who had been seeing limited minutes, didn’t play at all.)
And it worked, particularly on the defensive end: The Cougs got back to their turnover generating ways, taking the ball away on nearly 25% of possessions, led by Bonton’s three steals. That, combined with a spectacular interior defense performance (ODU was just 10-of-33 on twos), led to the Cougars’ best defensive performance since the opener against Seattle: just 0.79 points per possession allowed.
Offensively, WSU turned the ball over just seven times — a major achievement against the Monarchs’ stellar defense which has been one of the best teams in the country at generating takeaways.
The key stretch was a 19-2 run over a six-minute span in the early part of the second half, extending the lead to 18 points. The Monarchs would get no closer than 16 the rest of the way.
Besides the fact that any win is a good win right now, ODU is a solid midmajor who was in the tournament last season. This is a nice win for WSU, who now faces Colorado State in the 5th place game of the tournament on Wednesday. The Rams are another solid midmajor who are similarly talented to the Cougars and will provide a nice test. Win that one, and the team comes back home feeling pretty good.