Hoops: Exhibition game full of highs and lows

PULLMAN -- As far as exhibition games go, things went off pretty well for the Washington State men's basketball team Wednesday night. The Cougars drew decent attendance (2,427) for a game that didn't count, made a handful of crowd-pleasing plays, and came out with a victory -- albeit one marred by a mountain of turnovers and a closer-than-expected 62-53 final score over cross-border neighbor Lewis-Clark State College.

If this game was really a glimpse of what fans can expect from this year's Cougars, it was clear that WSU is not ready to contend for an upper-half spot in the Pac-10. The Cougars committed 23 turnovers, made just 3 of 16 three-pointers, and allowed L-C, an NAIA school, to stay in the game until the final few minutes.

"I thought we were very, very loose," WSU head coach Dick Bennett said. "We didn't respect the basketball. A lot of those turnovers came from silly decisions and nonchalance. We played a good team that made us look quite bad."

For the undersized Cougars, the Warriors made for a perfect matchup. Not one player on the LCSC roster stands taller than 6-8, and subsequently, WSU's front line looked impressive.

Senior forward Jeff Varem looked the most impressive, at least on offense. He scored a game-high 16 points and grabbed 12 rebounds. On three occasions he brought the Friel Court crowd to its feet with rim-rattling dunks, and early in the first half he swatted a layup attempt by Warriors guard Justin Fraser into the second row of bleachers.

"Jeff looked good offensively, but he played little to no defense," Bennett said in his usual no-frills manner. "We've been covering for him out there for too long."

Senior guard Thomas Kelati scored 11 points for the Cougars, while freshman center Robbie Cowgill added 10 points and seven rebounds. But Kelati, who is considered one of the Pac-10's best long-distance shooters, missed six of his seven shots from beyond the three-point arc. And while Cowgill was efficient, his lack of bulk and strength was obvious and should pose a problem once the Cougars have to face Division-I opposition.

Point guard Danny Allen scored 15 to lead LCSC, who is 4-2. Wednesday's game counted toward the Warriors' record.

Starting at point guard for the young Cougars was Kyle Weaver, one of eight freshmen on the roster (walk-on forward Arlen Plaister is academically a junior, but considered a freshman eligibility-wise). Weaver won the starting job after Derrick Low, also a freshman, broke his right foot during the first week of practice. Low was expected to start at the point, replacing departed star Marcus Moore, but Bennett says Low may be out until Christmas-time.

Weaver made a few eye-opening plays, but was consistently inconsistent against the Warriors. The 6-5 native of Beloit, Wisc., recorded five points, five assists, five turnovers and five fouls.

"I can't let one game get me down," Weaver said. "I just need to make some adjustments. Some of the stuff they did threw me off, but I can bounce back from that."

Weaver didn't play much of the second half due to foul trouble, and was replaced by Josh Akognon, another freshman. Akognon, a prolific scorer in high school, had a cold shooting night, hitting just 1 of 5 three-point attempts and finishing with five points, zero assists and two turnovers.

Varem said the Cougars did "alright" for their first game.

"We had six freshman playing...we all have to get used to each other. But I like the way (the freshman) played," Varem said.

Despite holding LCSC to 25 percent shooting (6 of 24) from the field in the first half, WSU was only ahead by three points at halftime, 26-23. The Warriors kept it close by making 13 trips to the free throw line, converting eight, and forcing the Cougars into 13 first-half turnovers.

WSU never trailed in the game, but allowed LCSC to get within six points at the 10-minute mark of the second half. With his team trailing by eight with 2:40 to play, Warriors forward John Moore was issued a technical foul for arguing with a referee. Kelati hit both free throws, and seconds later, Weaver made an up-and-under layup while getting fouled, and his free throw gave WSU its biggest lead at 60-47.

"There were good points and bad points, but there's a lot we can take away from this," Cowgill said.

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