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Hoops: A win moves Washington State to 7-5, but Ernie Kent knows Cougs need more points with conference play set to begin

PULLMAN – The good news from the hardcourt? Washington State won. The other news: WSU (7-5) faintly outrebounded and outran Sacramento State (3-8) in Beasley Coliseum in its final non-conference game -- just enough for a 74-66 win that was once again decided in the final minutes. Looking ahead to the conference slate, is Wazzu where it needs to be in order to be competitive in the Pac-12? Ernie Kent provided the answer.

The Cougs over 12 contests have averaged 73 ppg. To add the proper context: a 12-game non-conference schedule conducive to wins. Kent said after the victory WSU will need to be somewhere near 80 ppg to compete in the Pac-12.
 
"We're getting looks, we just have to do a better job of stepping up with confidence and knocking down shots," he said.

Among the positives to take away from Sac State: Josh Hawkinson picked up three fouls in the first half and attempted only two shots -- so someone needed to step up in the post. That someone was Conor Clifford (pictured above) who finished with 13 points before fouling out himself.  Still, Clifford reached double figures for the second straight game and grabbed five rebounds in 26 minutes.  His nine points in the first half helped WSU forge a 10-point lead at halftime.

The Cougs lost all of that lead plus a little more, trailing 60-58 with a little over three minutes left before WSU went on a 14-6 run to end the game.

Guards Charles Callison and Ike Iroegbu led the crimson effort with 16 and 15 points, respectively.  Iroegbu also logged five rebounds and five assists, earning the Pac-12 Network’s player of the game.
 
"Coach started me off at the 1 and that really got my legs going, set the pace a little bit," said Iroegbu.

True freshman Malachi Flynn later took up his customary position at the point (with Iroegbu moving to the 2) and scored 11 points. But he also picked up a technical foul early in the second half with WSU up by 14 points. Five minutes later, the Wazzu lead had dwindled to one.
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Kent, never lacking for positive thoughts, cited his team’s "growth potential" and hinted that WSU could be close to a  breakthrough that could give it an edge headed into Pac-12 play.
 
"The thing I like about this team starting off 0-0 again, they know a lot about themselves. They know they can play better, they understand things a lot better and I just expect us to get a little bit tougher," said Kent.
 
Kent did acknowledge if the Cougs continue to struggle to put teams away as they have, it could be another tough year for Cougar basketball.  WSU ended last season  on a 17-game Pac-12 losing streak.  

The Cougar players, however, in reflecting on a non-conference schedule that has fallen short of expectations by fans and players alike, spoke with true optimism in looking ahead.  Clifford, Iroegbu and Callison all seemed to settle on the same adjective: battle tested.
 
"It's better that we get these games established without coming down to the wire and finish them out," said Iroegbu.
 
At 7-5, things could be worse. A quick checks shows three teams in the Pac-12 have a lesser record than WSU: Washington (6-5); ASU (6-6) and Oregon State (4-9).  Clifford was asked after the game about the Cougs’ struggles to put a team away. 
 
"We're getting better at it. We do have these lapses where we let them back into the game but if you've noticed each of these games at home, the lapse has gotten shorter and shorter with each game. So I think we're going to grow and learn to the point where we take that lapse out," he said.
 
With losses to squads like San Jose State by 12, New Orleans by 16 -- and allowing teams like Utah Valley and Central Washington to take WSU down to the wire, the thought of back-to-back games in February against undefeated UCLA and USC isn’t a pleasant one.  To his credit, Kent agreed wholeheartedly the competition will take a sharp turn come Jan. 1.



UP NEXT: WSU vs. UW on Jan. 1 (TV: ESPNU, 5:30 p.m.)

NOTABLE NOTES:
*WSU has cut down on its turnovers the past two games, with eight each. WSU is averaging 13.3 turnovers per game through 12 contests.
 
*Hawkinson moved to fifth on the WSU career rebounding list. His 11 boards against Sac State gave him 829, passing Charlie Sells (1960-62).
 
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