The Cougars were rotating, talking and switching. That is what defense is all about.
K.J. Langston, whose minutes will continue to climb with Derrien King gone, was especially impressive. When Ernie Kent went with his small-ball line up, the 6-4, third-year sophomore guard from Chicago played the 4, putting him on 6-8 Nate Kratch. Langston fronted, rotated and worked ball screens to great effect. His stat line was modest – four points and two rebounds in 17 minutes – yet his impact was huge.
But here’s why the Cougars’ defense down the stretch was truly notable: they played tough at the end of the court opposite the WSU bench.
In other words, they didn’t have the crutch of Kent and staff a few feet away helping them rotate, switch and talk to one another.
It’s no coincidence that the Cougars have played better defense in the first halves of games this season than in the second halves.
That’s because you defend the basket in front of your team’s bench in the first half, thus making communication with the coaching staff pretty smooth in the first 20 minutes. In the second halves, you’re playing defense at the other end of the court, making communication with coaches much harder.
And that’s why Saturday’s comeback win over Santa Clara is good news for the direction of the program. It’s a sign of maturity and understanding when a team can play sound defense with only themselves to rely upon for communication. The Cougs have been talking and hustling – in the process fueling trust and confidence -- and the results showed against Santa Clara and in big chunks of the two previous games against Kansas State and Idaho.
Of course, the Cougar D isn’t air tight, and Santa Clara sharpshooter Jared Brownridge made WSU pay dearly for a handful of mistakes that let him bomb away cleanly. But the crimson trend line is going in the right direction. The Cougs not only understand what they need to do on defense, they’re now executing it as the non-conference slate is coming to a close.
Here’s another interesting note about the defense the Cougars played down the stretch in the Santa Clara game. They did it without Jeff Pollard, the 6-9 freshman forward from Bountiful, Utah, who has shown in the early going of this season that he knows defense. He hasn’t played since Dec. 3 due to a bout of mono but is expected to resume practices after Christmas and be ready for the Pac-12 opener at Washington in Jan. 1. Kent has referred often to him this season as the Cougs' most skilled defender among the bigs.
THE COUGARS HAVE ONE MORE non-conference game – tomorrow in Pullman at 6 p.m. vs. Sacramento State – before battling the Huskies. The Cougars are 6-5 and the Hornets are 3-7 following a double-overtime win over Abilene Christian on Saturday. The game will be televised on the Pac-12 Networks. WSU leads the series 8-1, the lone defeat coming in the first meeting in 1953.
Sacramento State is the fourth of four Big Sky conference teams that Washington State will face this season. The Cougs defeated Montana State on Nov. 11; Montana on Nov. 19; and Idaho on Dec. 7.
HAWK CIRCLING THE RECORD BOOK:
Cougar senior post man Josh Hawkinson, who already has etched his name into the record books, is closing in on more milestones. With 818 rebounds, he is just 185 away from the WSU record set by Steve Puidokas from 1974-77, and just 193 away from becoming the 13th Pac-12 player in history to grab 1,000 career rebounds. WSU has at least 20 games remaining on the schedule for this season, he would need to average 9.3 boards per game to top Puidokas, and 9.65 to reach the Pac-12 milestone.
And with 1,109 career points, he has recently passed CouGreats Terry Kelly, Thomas Kelati and Keith Morrison on the all-time scoring list and is closing in fast on Steve Harriel and hall of fame Vince Hanson.
Hawkinson is also five double-doubles away from the school record 53, also held by Puidokas.