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WSU beats UC Riverside behind strong defense, 70-56

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CJ Elleby leads the way with 20 points.

The Washington State Cougars returned from finals break to put together another strong defensive performance to pull away from the UC Riverside Highlanders, 70-56, at Beasley Coliseum.

The Cougars improved to 6-4, while the Highlanders dropped to 7-4.

As has been the case for most of WSU’s wins this season, it was the defense that led the way; WSU held Riverside to just 0.84 points per possession thanks largely to 23 ghastly turnovers that were fueled by a whopping 11 steals.

Those live-ball turnovers were a catalyst for the offense, which had 16 fast break points on its way to a respectable 1.04 points per possession — the Cougars’ best mark in weeks.

CJ Elleby led the team again, pouring in 20 points — his seventh time over that mark this season — on just 7-of-11 shooting, while also adding six rebounds, three steals, an assist and a block. (He also had four turnovers.) But unlike a lot of other games, Elleby got a good amount of help from his teammates.

  • Jeff Pollard scored 16 points on 4-of-12 shooting thanks to going 7-of-7 from the free throw line.
  • Aljaz Kunc scored 13 points on 5-of-6 shooting, including 2-of-3 from beyond the arc — he also had a couple of key offensive stickbacks during the decisive run of the game.
  • And although Isaac Bonton was still inefficient, he was less inefficient than usual, scoring 12 points on 5-of-15 shooting with three assists and two steals.

The first half of the game was fairly ugly, with the Cougars heading into the locker room with a 27-24 lead. The Highlanders had shot well, but they were on their way in the game-long theme of sabotaging their efforts with turnovers. The Cougars, meanwhile, didn’t shoot real well — just 32% overall — but they did hit five threes, and that kept them afloat.

The second half was a game of runs. WSU came out of the break outscoring Riverside 8-1 in the first four minutes, thanks largely to increased assertiveness from Elleby, who was quiet in the first half. But in a flash, the Highlanders tied up the game with a 10-0 run that covered roughly 70 seconds — two threes, a dunk and a layup that were compounded by a pair of live-ball turnovers by WSU.

But the Cougs righted the ship, embarking on a 15-2 run of their own over the next five minutes — Elleby had six more points, Bonton had a couple of layups, and Pollard had a jump hook and a pair of free throws. In that stretch, the Cougs’ win probability jumped from 73% to 97%.

The lead would never drop into single digits again.

WSU is in action next on Thursday against one of the worst teams in Division I, Florida A&M. Tipoff will be at 7:30 p.m. PT from Pullman, and the game will be broadcast on Pac-12 Network.