Noah Williams exploded for 10 of his game-high 19 points in the final five-plus minutes of the game as the Washington State Cougars edged the depleted Eastern Washington Eagles for a 71-68 victory on Saturday night.
The Cougs (2-0) trailed basically from the outset — they fell behind 16-3 in the first six minutes — and though they clawed back and chipped away at the Eagles’ lead, even tying the game twice early in the second half, they found themselves down by four to EWU (0-1) with 5:33 remaining.
That’s when Williams simply took over. First, he drained a 3 — his second of the game — to draw the Cougs to within one. On the ensuing EWU possession, Williams deftly stepped in front of an entry pass to secure a steal, then came down and hit another 3 to give WSU its first lead of the game, 61-59 with 4:48 to play.
After Eastern tied it up a couple of minutes later, Williams again was involved in a scoring play, this time penetrating before finding freshman TJ Bamba cutting to the basket for a tough layup through contact.
Eastern tied it again, on a layup from former Shadle Park star Jacob Groves, and after WSU and EWU traded misses, Williams showed up again — this time with a driving layup on the end of a fast break, giving the Cougars the lead for good at 65-63 with just over two minutes to play.
That doesn’t mean the final couple of minutes were without drama. Williams extended the lead to four after hitting a pair of free throws with 1:08 to play, but Jacob Davison — Eastern’s star who had been saddled by foul trouble and a Williams blanket all night — finally came to life, hitting a floater over Vova Markovetskyy just eight seconds later to draw back within two.
Markovetskyy got his revenge on the ensuing possession when — who else? — Williams found him with a dish under the basket for a two-handed flush. Four-point lead, 44 seconds to play, just gotta close it out with one stop ...
But Davison wasn’t going to go out like that. The senior, who was voted the Big Sky preseason player of the year, took just three seconds out of a timeout to nail a 3 and it was hang on time for the Cougs.
Needing a bucket to provide a bit of a cushion, Isaac Bonton missed an off-balance baseline jumper with about 20 seconds to play, the rebound was secured by the Eagles, and Eastern was bringing the ball up with a chance to win the game. Kim Aiken — who had done a little bit of everything for Eastern — tried to force the action, but that turned out to be a bad idea: Williams was the defender on him, and the Coug deftly slid into position and drew a charge.
Was it a bit of a soft charge? Eastern sure thought so, but it was in line with other charges that had been called in the game — many against WSU — and Aiken did extend his arm ever so slightly.
Bonton hit a pair of free throws and Davison’s desperation heave at half court was well short of the basket as time expired. Eastern begged for a foul on the attempt, but ... yeah. Not getting that call.
Williams finished with 19 points, 8 rebounds, 4 steals, 3 assists, and just 2 turnovers, while Bonton scored 11 on another rough shooting night — just 1-of-10 on 2s — with 4 rebounds. Efe Abogidi was the other player in double digits with 10 points and 4 rebounds (in just 10 minutes!).
Eastern was led by the Groves brothers — Tanner had 17 points and 9 rebounds while Jacob had 16 and 8 — but could only muster 0.92 points per possession for the game, including 0.78 in the second half as the Cougars dug in with their aggressive man-to-man defense.
Here are our takeaways. They are numerous, so buckle up!
Don’t be fooled by the close margin — this was a nice win
Let’s start here: It feels like we should be much better than Eastern by virtue of Pac-12/Big Sky dynamics, but as Craig noted in his preview, these are two relatively evenly matched teams, separated by just two spots in the kenpom.com rankings. You’re right if you think that Eastern isn’t that good, but .., neither are we. Yet, anyway. You’d expect a close game, and we got one.
Perhaps you’re also thinking, “Wait, we couldn’t easily beat a team that only had eight players available? What the heck??” Indeed, EWU was missing five players, including starting point guard Ellis Magnuson, because of COVID — something that would seem to give WSU a distinct advantage at first blush — but it’s also important to note that WSU wasn’t exactly at full strength, either: Kyle Smith was missing Tony Miller, Dishon Jackson, Carlos Rosario, and Jefferson Koulibaly. Miller’s absence was a new development, depriving Smith of the first player off his bench. (The other three also missed the first game.) Two of Smith’s rotation players last night were walk-ons.
It certainly had an impact on how Smith had to manage the game. When Efe Abogidi (more on him in a sec) ran into foul trouble, WSU’s coach turned to walk-on Brandton Chatfield to try and match up with Eastern’s small frontcourt. Later, rather than turn to 7-foot-1 mountain-of-a-man Vova Markovetskyy, Smith just went ultra-small with Aljaz Kunc playing the 5 — which didn’t turn out real well. Smith eventually did go with Markovetskyy late in the game (to good effect), but I’ll bet he would have loved to be able to try and use another athletic big man like Jackson instead of mixing and matching with a bunch of guys who each have glaring weaknesses.
Eastern also only played six guys in the entire game, something you don’t see very often. Again, that would seem to give WSU and advantage, but for one game, things don’t always work out like that. Yes, the Eagles used an extremely minimal rotation, but it was their first game, and legs are plenty fresh. The long-term limitations of that kind of a rotation are obvious, but for one night? It’s possible to make it work — EWU coach Shantay Legans surely had no problem convincing his players to give it everything they had for 40 minutes to try and knock off big brother down the road.
Another thing to keep in mind: Eastern is a veteran squad that won the Big Sky last season. It was obvious that the Eagles had a clear sense of who they were and what they were trying to accomplish on both ends of the floor. They were smart and disciplined and provided an excellent test for WSU’s young players, who passed in the end.
If we’re going to get THAT version of Noah Williams ... watch out
Fans like to draw a lot of comparisons between Williams and former WSU stud Kyle Weaver, and it sure looked like a good one last night.
Frankly, Williams bailed the Cougs out on another night when Bonton struggled with his shot, particularly with his finishing around the rim. We saw against Texas Southern what happens when the entire scoring burden is put on Bonton, so having Williams chip in made all the difference.
It’s not reasonable to expect 19/8/4/3 with any kind of regularity. But if we can get an average of 12/6/2/3 — plus the disruptive defense? That would be huge, especially if he can hit one or two 3s a game to make defenses respect him beyond the arc. I don’t know if the 3-of-4 he made from out there last night changes the way defenses look at him — the footwork still looks a little inconsistent to me, even if it appears he’s getting more lift on the shot — but if he can make something like 35% out there, it’ll change WSU’s offense.
The kids showed something
In addition to Abogidi’s impact, both Andrej Jakimovski and TJ Bamba — who only played bit parts in the opener — made important contributions.
Jakimovski played a whopping 31 minutes, and although he only scored six points, the pair of 3-pointers he made helped dig the Cougs out of their early hole. He also came up with 6 rebounds and 3 assists as his ball movement helped unlock Eastern’s defense.
Perhaps the best measure of his all-around contribution is that WSU was +12 when he was on the floor — far and away the best mark of anyone on the team. Maybe that was mostly a function of him having the good fortune of coming on after WSU was already in its hole, but still, he did a lot of the little things that helped the Cougars see out the victory.
Bamba, meanwhile, played “only” 16 minutes, but it sure felt like more, such was his impact — and it’s very easy to see why his name has come up repeatedly when Smith talks about the freshmen. He’s tall, long, athletic, and possesses a mature body. For whatever reason, he wasn’t one of the “heralded” members of the 2020 class, but he absolutely belongs in that conversation. Bamba put up 9 points, 6 rebounds and 3 assists.
Like Williams, WSU absolutely needed the contributions from these two to win the game.
Efe is still very young!
Fouling out in 10 minutes is bad, but we’re going to forgive the young man, who is still very early in his basketball career. Remember that he’s from Nigeria and came to the game late, and although he spent time at the NBA academy in Australia, his game time was limited by a series of injuries.
So, while the physical tools are tantalizing — he overwhelmed Eastern’s small front line in his limited minutes, including another monster block — Abogidi is still learning when not to jump over a guy’s back for an offensive rebound when he’s already got four fouls. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
Be patient. The ceiling is so high, and it will come.
Oh, and perhaps you (and Greg Heister and Dan Dickau) will find this useful:
I thought my most important work of the year was telling you guys Megan Thee Stallion attended Texas Southern. I’ve trumped that by obtaining the correct pronunciation of Efe “Abogidi.”— Theo Lawson (@TheoLawson_SR) November 29, 2020
Keep this handy for the next four years. pic.twitter.com/g4Kz4QLHy8
Vova Markovetskyy had the best 7-minute, 2-point, 1-rebound stretch you’ll ever see
You might have been wondering where Markovetskyy was, early in the game, when Abogidi landed in foul trouble. WSU’s thought process almost always starts with defense, and there was really no way the Cougs could play their traditional man-to-man with Markovetskyy guarding Tanner Groves on the perimeter — he’s just not mobile enough.
Smith did eventually release the big man for the final seven minutes of the game. And it was glorious, even if the stat line didn’t reflect it.
The Cougs went to a zone with Markovetskyy in the middle, something I suspect Smith didn’t really want to do, given Eastern’s 3-point shooting prowess. But it worked, forcing the Eagles to attack WSU differently, and although they got a couple of relatively easy 2s by attacking the middle, they weren’t really able to unlock the zone for wide open perimeter looks. (Or, maybe, Smith was holding him off so that Eastern wouldn’t have a chance to adjust to the zone down the stretch.)
And then, on offense, Markovetskyy’s impact went far beyond his one monster dunk. The Cougs immediately transitioned to a ball-screen offense, with Markovetskyy doing what he does best: Being big and getting in the way. Eastern struggled mightily with that as WSU surged ahead in the final five minutes.
Up Next: Oregon State Beavers (?!?)
That’s right — with just two nonconference games under their belts, the Cougars will open the conference season on Wednesday by hosting OSU. It’s part of the Pac-12’s new scheduling philosophy, where each team plays 20 games and the extra two are played in December.
The Beavers are another tick up in competition level; hopefully some of the injuries will clear up so that Smith has a little more to work with.