Zags rule but Cougs show growth

SPOKANE – Gonzaga stole a home game from Washington State, so the Cougars did their best to steal a victory from the Bulldogs. No, the Cougars did not shock the basketball world by defeating the ninth-ranked Bulldogs. The outcome was never in serious doubt Wednesday night at the Spokane Arena. Gonzaga is that good; Washington State is that young.

Still, it’s safe to say the sellout crowd of 11,521 -- mostly Gonzaga supporters -- came away impressed with the sheer effort of a WSU squad that was a 23 1/2-point underdog. The Cougars trailed by nine with eight minutes to go before bowing 81-66.

“I’m proud of the way our guys battled,” Cougars coach Ernie Kent said.

“We’re never going to back down from them,” WSU forward Josh Hawkinson said.

“We played hard effort-wise,” Cougars guardDaVonte Lacy said. “I just think we didn’t play smart.”

Kent and his players bemoaned the litany of mental errors made by the Cougars. Some of those lapses are inevitable with a new coaching staff teaching a new offense and defense to a team with three underclassmen in their first season as full-time starters.

“We’re getting better,” Kent said. “We’re a lot better than we were three or four weeks ago.”

Washington State certainly did not look intimidated against Gonzaga. After scoring a season-high 91 points in Saturday’s win over Texas-San Antonio, the Cougars came out aggressively in a game that was originally scheduled for Pullman, only to have the Bulldogs basically strong-arm the WSU into playing at a “neutral” arena a few 3-pointers west of the Gonzaga campus.

The Cougars shot 52.1 percent from the field and 50 percent on 3-pointers against a team that was giving up just 59.5 points per game. Gonzaga (8-1) was holding opponents to 37.0 percent shooting from the field and 30.5 percent from beyond the arc.

Washington State matched up poorly on defense with the taller, thicker, more experienced Bulldogs. The Cougars had plenty of breakdowns on defense near the basket, but WSU held the Bulldogs to slightly less points than their 84.9 average that ranked 11th in the nation through Tuesday.

The Bulldogs hit 53.8 percent of their shots, but Gonzaga’s outstanding backcourt tandem of Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell Jr. combined to go 1-for-11 for two points. Pangos, a senior point guard who is on the watch list for various national player of the year awards, went scoreless for the first time in four years as a Gonzaga starter. He averaged 22.7 points in three previous games against WSU.

“Defensively, our guards battled hard,” Kent said.

So did WSU’s post players, but they were no match for 7-foot-1, 288-pound Przemek Karnowski and company. Karnowski sank of 10 of 15 shots, matched his career high of 22 points and added eight rebounds, three assists, two steals and a blocked shot.

“There’s only one Karnowski we have to worry about,” Kent said. “Thank God for that.”

Gonzaga junior forward Kyle Wiltjer, a 6-10 transfer who played on Kentucky’s national champions in 2012, nailed 9 of 14 shots and scored 21 points. Senior guard Byron Wesley, USC’s leading scorer last season, took advantage of the focus inside on NBA prospects Karnowski, Wiltjer and Domantas Sabonis to cut inside for layups for most of his 20 points.

Kent said defending the Bulldogs amounts to “picking your poison,” since Gonzaga can score at will inside or from the perimeter. The Cougars often double-teamed Karnowski after he scored 18 points in the first half, but that left others open.

Hawkinson continues to blossom one year after seeing little action as a freshman. The 6-10 forward led the Cougars with 18 points, 11 rebounds, two steals and two blocked shots.

“He put in a lot of work (in the offseason),” Lacy said. “I think he’s starting to reap the rewards.”

Lacy and fellow guard Ike Iroegbu both scored 14 points. Iroegbu, a sophomore, poured in a career-high 20 points last year at Gonzaga, when the Cougars lost 90-74 before a sellout crowd.

“You always like to play in front of sold-out crowds,” said Iroegbu (pictured above). “It makes you step up your game.”

The Cougars, who had won three of their previous four games, fell to 4-5 this season. It’s obvious the Cougars have room to improve, but it’s also obvious that progress is being made under the omni-enthusiastic Kent.

“He’s done a great job of just leading us and teaching us things that can help us in the future,” Lacy said.

“He gives each player immense confidence,” Iroegbu said. “He just lets us go out there and play.”

“I really like his (up-tempo offense) style,” Hawkinson said, “and I think our team is slowing going to adjust to it. We have a long way to go. We made a lot of mental errors. That’s something we need to clean up.”

NOTABLE:

  • The Cougars lead the all-time series with Gonzaga 98-51, but WSU has lost the past four meetings, and 13 of the past 16. The Bulldogs moved up from the NAIA ranks to NCAA Division I in 1958-59.

  • Since the contest was designated a Gonzaga home game, the Bulldogs stretched their home winning streak to 31. Only Duke (37) has a longer active streak in Division I.

  • Gonzaga coach Mark Few owns the best career winning percentage in Division I men’s basketball history (.803). He has a 410-101 record in 16 years at Gonzaga. All of his previous teams played in the NCAA tournament. Only six WSU teams have played in the tournament.

  • Ny Redding, WSU’s freshman point guard, lost a shoe twice in the second half. “Unless you want Velcro,” Kent told Redding, “you’ve got to learn how to tie your shoes tighter.” Redding, who hit 4 of 7 shots from the field, played 28 minutes of the game, tying him with Iroegbu for third-most on the team behind Hawkinson and Lacy.

  • Junior Longrus, WSU’s undersized starting center, scored his first four points in three games. He’s gone scoreless in five of nine games.

    NEXT UP: The Cougars play at Santa Clara on Saturday, then return home for finals week. WSU plays San Jose State in Pullman on Dec. 21.



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