The Washington State Cougars survived a rough first half to pull away from the lowly Arkansas-Pine Bluff Golden Lions in the second half and cruise to a 65-50 victory that closes out the non-conference slate.
The Cougars (9-4) were coming off a break for Christmas, and it showed early: They shot a paltry 32% overall in the first half and were just 4-of-14 from beyond the arc. The Golden Lions’ 2-3 zone seemed to give them trouble, but the Cougars also made only 4-of-8 from the free throw line, perhaps an indication of rust.
That wasn’t the only issue early on; the defense struggled a bit, too, as the Golden Lions — ranked 345th in Division I by kenpom.com coming into the game and possessing only one win — also made 15-of-23 from inside the arc. WSU trailed by two, 28-26, at halftime
But the second half was a different story. Arkansas-Pine Bluff extended the lead to four early on, but the Cougs went on a 16-5 run from there to take a seven point lead, capped by a putback by DJ Rodman that came with a free throw.
Kshun Stokes hit back-to-back shots for the Golden Lions to pull them within two midway through the half, but WSU went on a 9-0 run behind two layups from Noah Williams and two layup from CJ Elleby — the latter coming off an assist from Williams and with a foul and a made free throw — to take the lead to double digits with seven minutes to play.
It wasn’t over yet — Pine Bluff made a back-to-back threes to pull within five with 5:34 to play — but Isaac Bonton scored the next five points and WSU finished the game on a 12-2 run to close a shaky performance out strong.
The defense once again led the way, allowing just 0.79 points per possession, fueled largely by turning over Pine Bluff on 24% of possessions.
Elleby and Bonton both had strong offensive games, scoring 22 and 16 points on 18 and 13 shots, respectively, which bodes well going forward. But perhaps the most encouraging development was the play of Williams; he only scored eight points, but he had three rebounds, an assist, two blocks and two steals. He’s got the potential to be a defensive ace, and he was huge in the second half as Jaylen Shead continues to sit out with a hip injury. He’ll be out next week against the Los Angeles schools, too.
WSU opens Pac-12 play on Thursday against the USC Trojans at 7:30 p.m. PT.