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WSU beats New Mexico State for best win of the season, 63-54

CJ Elleby bounces back with a big game.

NCAA Basketball: Texas Southern at Gonzaga James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

CJ Elleby bounced back in a big way from his worst game of the year to post 20 points and seven rebounds as the Washington State Cougars picked up a solid nonconference win over the New Mexico State Aggies, 63-54, in Spokane.

Beating New Mexico State might not seem that impressive, given that the Aggies dropped to 5-5 with the loss. However, the Aggies were the first top 100 team the Cougs faced this season, never mind the fact that many of the same players returned from the squad that beat WSU twice last season and was an eyelash away from knocking off Auburn in the NCAA Tournament.

WSU (5-4) used its best defensive performance of the year to get the victory. Heading into the game, we figured it would come down to turnover margin and WSU’s defensive rebounding; well, NMSU gave the ball away 17 times to WSU’s 13 (with one of the Cougs’ turnovers coming with the game already decided), while the Cougars limited NMSU to rebounding just 33% of their misses, a bit below the Aggies’ season average.

When you add that to holding the Aggies’ shooting down (just 43.8 eFG%), it worked out to allowing just 0.79 points per possession — the fourth time this year the Cougars have held an opponent under 0.80. In case you were wondering, Ernie Kent-coached teams did it four times ... in five years. Combined.

There was one other deciding factor: The Cougs were 8-of-21 on three-point attempts. Beyond the fact that it was one of their better showings of the year from beyond the arc (38%), it was part of a patient offense that featured a concerted effort to get to the rim. The resulting 2-point percentage was quite bad, but it also turned into 26 free throw attempts — of which the Cougars made 21.

The resulting 0.95 points per possession wasn’t great, but it was good enough to win on an afternoon when the defense was borderline spectacular.

In addition to leading WSU in points and rebounds, Elleby also had three assists, two steals and zero turnovers. Jeff Pollard was a missed free throw away from a double-double, posting nine points and 10 rebounds.

The Cougars now take the week off for finals before hosting UC Riverside next Sunday.