The Washington State Cougars used a huge second half to pull away from the Texas State Bobcats in their season opener, opening up a 29-point lead with two minutes to go before cruising to an 83-61 victory.
The first half was a bit cagey, as these early season matchups often are — lineup combinations were hit and miss, the refs were extremely whistle happy, and Texas State actually led by six with about 10 minutes to go before the break, 18-12. But DJ Rodman came to the rescue, scoring 13 points as the Cougs outscored the Bobcats 26-13 the rest of the way to take a 7-point lead into the second half.
WSU opened the second half on a 17-7 run to take a 55-38 lead, eventually extending it to a 33-16 run that put the game away at 71-47 with just under 7 minutes to play.
Mouhamed Gueye led four players in double-digit scoring with 18 points, 13 rebounds and two blocks, but it was newcomer Justin Powell who stole the show with 14 points, 12 assists, and just one turnover. Rodman finished with 16, and Jabe Mullins added 13.
Powell’s passing: Following the departure of Michael Flowers, there was some question as to who would assume the lead guard role, given that there wasn’t a natural point guard on the roster. Powell seems to have answered that one definitively right out of the gate. Powell didn’t create a ton off the dribble, but his elite wowed fans with an array of passes that found his teammates in a variety of ways. This was a good one:
Justin Powell with the dish to Gueye for the easy flush!— WSU Men's Basketball (@WSUCougarMBB) November 8, 2022
JP with 8 assists and Mouhamed with the fourth double-double of his career!
https://t.co/WSmLBb67QI#GoCougs | #WAZZU pic.twitter.com/pOv8xyUOB8
Perhaps nothing illustrates his contribution to the game more than WSU being +31 when he was on the floor, which was for a whopping 36 minutes. (More on that in a second.) There was a stretch in the second half when TJ Bamba and Gueye went to the bench with foul trouble, but the backups didn’t miss a beat — and that had a lot to do with Powell, who just kept everything flowing. For the olds in the crowd, he reminded me a lot of Marcus Moore.
For what it’s worth, it wasn’t only Powell — the Cougs moved the ball well all night, racking up 19 assists total on their 29 makes (66%). Last year, they were 289th, assisting on just 46% of their baskets. Having tall guards sure is nice.
Tight rotation ... already? Early season games are well known for lineup experimentation, but Kyle Smith played his starters way more in this one than you’d normally see. If my math is right — and if the school’s game book is accurate — the starters played together for around 17:30. I think there are a few reasons for that, not the least of which was injuries: Presumed starter Andrej Jakimovski is out for a while with a toe problem, and highly touted recruit Adrame Diongue is battling an ankle injury (which Smith revealed after the game).
But that wasn’t all of it. A large part of it surely was that the starters were very good together — +26. And Texas State was putting up a bit of a fight. Eleven of that +26 came in the first eight minutes of the second half when the game was still in the balance, and I think there is a recognition that this team — with its tournament aspirations — just can’t afford to stub its collective toe. So, where Smith might have been inclined to tinker, his top priority was to make sure and secure a win.
Expect more of the same on Saturday in what is likely to be a massive game against Boise State.
Zone is no longer for cowards: It’s no secret that I generally can’t stand zone defenses. WSU version of it last season was horrendous. But as the Cougs struggled a bit to contain penetration from Texas State’s jitterbug guard, Mason Harrell, they went to it. And it was good! That probably had a little something to do with the fact that WSU now runs 6-5/6-6/6-6 on the perimeter, and maybe also something to with bringing in 6-6 Kymany Houinsou and 6-7 Carlos Rosario off the bench.
You’ll never convince me that zone should be a staple, but with Bamba as the primary defender on the ball, there likely will be times when the Cougs need to contain smaller, quicker players. It’s good to have this in the toolbox.
And, again, having tall guards sure is nice.
Did you see that?
“He’s an elite passer and pretty close to being an elite shooter,” Smith said of Powell. “We really upgraded there (passing the ball). That’s kind of our identity. ... It’s nice, offensively, when the ball can move. There’s some fun plays. I think there’s a lot more coming.”
WSU took 26 of its 55 shots at the rim, converting 69% of them.