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WSU beats Santa Clara to advance in NIT

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The Cougs’ defense was lights out.

PULLMAN, WA - MARCH 3: Washington State Cougars Men’s Basketball versus the Oregon State University Beavers at Beasley Coliseum - Washington State guard Tyrell Roberts (2) Jack Ellis/CougCenter

The Washington State Cougars used stifling defense to power past the Santa Clara Broncos, 63-50, in the opening round of the NIT in Pullman on Tuesday night.

The Cougs improved to 20-14, their first 20-win season since the last time they were in the NIT in 2010-11. They’ll face the winner of SMU and Nicholls, which will be played Wednesday night at 5 p.m. PT on ESPN+. If the Mustangs win (as kenpom.com gives them a 91% chance to do), the Cougars will travel to Dallas to face them in the second round on either March 19 or 20.

This one was an intriguing matchup between one of the better offenses in the tournament (Santa Clara) and one of the better defenses (Washington State), but it was clear from the outset which of the two would have the upper hand as the Cougars repeatedly frustrated the Broncos.

WSU pressured Santa Clara into a lot of contested shots and flustered them into 12 turnovers. The Broncos like to take the ball inside and are usually pretty selective about taking 3-pointers, but time and again they were rebuffed by the Cougars’ bigs whenever they wandered inside the arc, as WSU logged 10 blocks on Santa Clara’s 37 2-point attempts — a remarkable 27% block rate.

Forced to shoot it from farther away, the Broncos ended up taking 23 3-pointers, more than they are comfortable taking, and made just 3 of them for a paltry 13% — by far their worst rate of the season. Some of that was WSU’s defense contesting 3-pointers, but some of it also was just Santa Clara missing shots. (It was nice for someone else to miss a ton of shots for once, to be honest.)

Still, for all that defense, the Cougars held just a tenuous 4-point lead at half, 27-23. WSU’s shooting wasn’t a whole lot better, but Tyrell Roberts did enough to keep the cougars out in front by hitting four 3s in the opening period to keep the offense afloat.

He didn’t stop in the second half either, and it was his shooting that powered the Cougars to a lead that put the game out of reach.

A 10-2 run coming out of halftime pushed the WSU lead to 12 with 15:27 remaining in the game. Roberts had a fast break layup, but it was Michael Flowers, who didn’t have his best game, who scored five in the run with a 3-pointer and a pair of free throws.

With the game slipping away, Santa Clara punched back, as their all-everything guard Jalen Williams got going with a pair of layups and a 3-pointer. But Roberts hit a pair of 3s to counteract them and then a 9-0 run by the Cougs — which featured yet another Roberts 3 sandwiched between a jumper by DJ Rodman and a layup and dunk by Dishon Jackson — pushed the lead back out to 16 with 8:13 remaining, and Santa Clara would not threaten again.

Roberts finished with a career-high (at WSU) 23 points on 8-of-21 shooting, including 7-of-16 on 3-pointers, adding 7 rebounds, an assist, and a steal. Efe Abogidi was the other Coug in double figures, contributing 13 points on 4-of-7 with 5 rebounds and 3 monster blocks. Dishon Jackson contributed 4 blocks of his own, to go with 8 points and 8 rebounds, while Mouhamed Gueye had 4 blocks in his return to the lineup after missing the past two games with an ankle injury.

Flowers had a tremendous all-around game with 9 points, 4 rebounds, 5 assists and 2 steals.

Williams, who came into the game with much fanfare, had a relatively quiet night with Noah Williams and TJ Bamba guarding him, scoring 19 points on 6-of-16 shooting. The 6-foot-6 point guard also grabbed a whopping 15 rebounds and dished out 4 assists. Josep Vrankic also dropped in 19 with 10 boards.