The Washington State Cougars’ defense showed up in their Pac-12 opener but the offense remained in the locker room as an exceptionally cold shooting night undermined a tremendous effort as the USC Trojans survived Pullman with a 65-56 win.
WSU (9-5 overall, 0-1 Pac-12) allowed a stellar 0.93 points per possession to the Trojans — only Marquette, LSU, Temple and (somehow?) Fairfield have held them to less this year —but the Cougars posted just 0.80 points per possession that was fueled by 32 eFG%. Both were season lows for the offense, but the latter was the season low by a long shot.
The 1000-foot view is that the Cougs were done in by what was likely the worst shooting night of CJ Elleby’s life: 3-for-22 including 1-of-8 from beyond the arc. Second-leading scorer Isaac Bonton wasn’t much better at 7-for-26, although he did go 4-of-12 from downtown to end up with 18 points.
The more nuanced view, though, is that the Cougars just really, really struggled with USC’s length and athleticism, particularly inside. The Trojans are the 14th-best team in the country in 2-point defense and 24th-best team in the country in blocking shots — a bad profile in an opponent for a WSU team that has struggled getting to the rim even against their weak non-conference schedule.
And yet ... the Cougars never let the game spiral out of control, standing as an undeniable example of the transformation WSU has undergone with Kyle Smith at the helm.
“We gave ourselves a chance,” Smith said. “The obvious elephant in the room is you can’t expect to win and shoot the way we shot it. We’ve got to get a little more patient … I think our guys were anxious and we’ve just got to play more within ourselves.”
Already without starting point guard Jaylen Shead (for the third consecutive game) and key reserve Marvin Cannon (for the second game), the Cougars lost starting center Jeff Pollard to injury within the first five minutes of the contest when he took an elbow to the face.
USC used his absence as the catalyst to surge out to a 20-7 lead as WSU — featuring a front line of 6-foot-8/198-pound Jaz Kunc, 6-6/210-pound walk-on Tony Miller, and little used 7-foot-1 true freshman Volodymyr Markovetskyy — struggled mightily to deal with the Trojans’ superior athleticism up front.
Those struggles carried over to the offensive end. Every shot was contested, and Elleby — the team’s go-to scorer — scored just 4 points on 1-of-9 shooting, and the team shot just 24% from the field.
And yet, even considering all that, they had a chance to tie the game in the final minute and only trailed by two possessions at the half, 31-27.
How? With the formula that has worked so well all season:
- Disciplined, swarming defense that generated 11 takeaways while the offense gave it away just three times; and
- Hustling rebounding against a much bigger front line. The Trojans have been one of the better offensive rebounding teams in the country, but they got just three. Meanwhile, the Cougars picked up 12 offensive rebounds, using those second bites at the apple to survive the poor shooting.
On the first possession of the second half, Bonton drilled a step-back 3 to pull the Cougs to within one, and it appeared to be game on. But, over the next four minutes, the Trojans went on a 9-2 run to extend the lead back out to eight.
But every time it looked like USC might run away with it, the Cougs found a way to hang in there — mostly through sheer force of will on defense. WSU took the ball away 20 times and only gave up six offensive rebounds. The latter represented just 24% of the Trojans’ misses; they normally grab about a third of them, one of the better rates in the country. This, again, despite missing their starting center (who already is undersized).
Offensively, Bonton hit another three to get WSU back within five, the Trojans pushed it back out to seven, and it the lead hovered within four points and seven points until WSU got back-to-back transition buckets from Jervae Robinson and Elleby to get within three points with eight minutes to play.
It was as close as they would get.
Led by freshman sensation big man Onyeka Okongwu — who finished with 27 points on 12-of-14 shooting with 12 rebounds and three blocks — the Trojans closed the game by outscoring the Cougars 15-9 over the final eight minutes. The poor shooting was finally just too much, as Elleby missed his final five shots and Bonton missed five of his final six (including two blocked 3s and a missed free throw).
This program is in great hands. I’m not sure it’s possible to feel more proud of a team after a nine-point loss in which they never held a lead. Yet that’s exactly where I am after this one.
The Cougars weren’t just extremely shorthanded when they lost Pollard; they were extremely shorthanded in the area where USC was best. WSU showed incredible heart and guts to hang in this one with contributions from unexpected players such as Markovetskyy and DJ Rodman, but nobody was bigger than Tony Miller. The walk-on continues to be one of the team’s most valuable players, and he finished with 15 points and 11 rebounds.
WSU was organized and tenacious on defense, allowing them to hang around a game they really had no business hanging around. This is the kind of program Kyle Smith promised, and while the results didn’t follow the effort tonight, the Cougars are going to be tough out for most everyone if they keep playing like this.
I meant what I said on Twitter: This was a performance to be proud of. And it’s indicative of the direction of a program that is setting the foundation for big things.
CJ Elleby might need to re-think his approach. WSU hasn’t faced a lot of length this season, but on the occasions it has, Elleby has tended to struggle. Tonight wasn’t for lack of trying; Elleby varied his attack from all sorts of locations and on all sorts of actions, including going to the rim. But he looked overmatched, and with each miss, he grew more wild and more desperate — and it actually impacted other parts of his game: Elleby had nine rebounds in the first half, but just one in the second half to go with an assist, a steal ... and three fouls.
“They played him with the small guy on the switch and stuff. It was hard for him to get his shot,” Smith said. “Then he had some drives where it was like, ‘Mmm, I thought there was some contact there.’ … I thought he took a couple he’d like to take back. … I think on that end, he’s just got to let the game come to him more.”
Teams have known all year that Elleby is the linchpin, but Pac-12 teams have the talent to frustrate him in ways that many of the Cougs’ non-conference opponents could not. Elleby is going to have to evolve.
Jeff Pollard is a damn warrior. Pollard did end up returning to the game with 2:24 to go, the left side of his face all puffed up from where he took the hit. It was even more remarkable than we realized at the time:
Pollard went to the hospital early first 1/2 after taking a charge. X-rays negative for a facial fracture. He comes back to Beasley re-enters the game late in 2nd and scores a layup rt away.— Matt Chazanow (@M_Chaz) January 3, 2020
Whole side of his face puffed up...gave a thumbs up postgame “all good.”#GoCougs
Incredible. I don’t know what difference it is that Pollard thought he could make in 2 minutes and 30 seconds with the Cougs trailing by nine, but I absolutely salute a guy who wanted back into a game that badly.