HOOPS: Win over Zags stirs up the echoes

PULLMAN -- Tony Bennett hoped the Cougs' early returns -- the best start since the 1993-94 season -- would help produce a "great college basketball atmosphere" for No. 18 Gonzaga. With the decibel level at Friel Court in the Beasley Arts Coliseum the loudest it's been in a decade, and a jubilant throng dancing on the hardcourt after the 77-67 win, he got his wish.

Everyone on the Cougars' roster has played in front of a packed house of screaming fans, but it's usually been on the road.

"Home court advantage is big," said Bennett before the game. "I imagine it will be mostly Cougar fans, I hope it energizes our guys and they play hard. This will be the first time a lot of these guys -- at least here -- have played in this kind of environment."

Ultimately, however, the team that walked off the court with a W Tuesday night was the team that played the hardest, and Bennett pointed out beforehand no amount of crowd noise can put points on the board.

"What I shared with them (beforehand) is, it's coming down to which team gets to their game and just play," the coach said. "Yes t will be exciting, there will be a lot of noise, and that helps you as the game wears on. But it's what team can get to their game and just play. If you're thinking about hitting a home run or throwing a knockout punch, forget about it, you don't do it against a team that talented."

His words proved prophetic, as the Cougs won a hard fought, back and forth game that wasn't decided until the final minutes.

Meanwhile, the coach also discussed the continued focus on improving the game on the boards, an aspect he said has hurt the Cougs in the first stretch of the season. Against the Zags the Cougs were out rebounded 34-28, and Bennett said it's something that will likely be a focus for many weeks to come.

"That will be something that we address all year-long," Bennett said. "It's just going to be huge with the size of teams we go against."

One big reason, metaphorically and physically speaking, to be optimistic about the rebounding wars going forward is the recent return of center Aron Baynes, a 6-10, 270 pound sophomore who has been hampered all season with a foot injury that required surgery in the off-season. Baynes has seen his time ever-increasing in the last few games, and played 14 minutes against Utah. But Bennett was also mindful that the big man in the middle is still a ways away from being 100 percent healthy.

"I think it's going to be awhile," Bennett said. "He's only been practicing now for a couple weeks, but I think each week he is making little strides. It's a situation, from what I understand and what the doctor said where he is going to have a lot of discomfort, he's going to ache for quite a while."

Transfer Mac Hopson (North Idaho College) has seen his minutes decline the last few games after starting the first six, and is still adjusting to the level of play in the Pac-10, Bennett said, adding that the 6-2, 178 pound sophomore is still a fundamental contributor to the squad. "Mac has done a good job for us," Bennett said. "(But) there's depth on this team. I am going to take a look at some other things but as I told Mac when he came, it's a lot for a guy to be on you, as a first year player at this level. I want him to take a look at things, but by no means is he out of the picture." Bennett said performance in practice, competition at the point guard position, and attempts to strengthen rebounding have all been factors in deciding the amount of playing time Hopson has received.

Meanwhile, Bennett's decision to burn true freshman Nikola Koprivica's redshirt was heartily endorsed by the player, Bennett said, adding the 6-6, 211 pound Belgrade, Serbia native's play has been somewhat of a pleasant surprise. "I always ask the player, ‘Ok, what do you want?' And he said, ‘I want to play.' And I said ‘Ok, you'll have to earn your time.' He understood the rules going in, and his desire in coming here was the opportunity to play right away," Bennett said. "And he did, actually, he did ok. He played about 10 or 12 minutes at Utah and did a fine job. And he'll continue, if he plays well, to get more time."

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