D-minded Hopson makes most of new chances

PULLMAN -- Mac Hopson didn't light up the scoreboard last Saturday against Oregon State but he hit the shot that mattered. He also ran the point for 17 turnover-free minutes, allowing Derrick Low and Kyle Weaver to roam. The 6-foot-2 sophomore from Portland with great basketball genes in the family tree is becoming an increasingly visible cog in the Cougar machine as the post-season nears.

Hopson, the son of former Sweet 16 Idaho Vandal great Phil Hopson, started the Cougars' first seven games of the season but soon after became a frequent companion with the bench. In fact, he didn't see any action in 12 games -– including the seven preceding last week's swing through the Willamette Valley.

But Hopson made the most of his experience on the Oregon Trail. Thursday, in Eugene, he played 16 minutes and racked up an impressive line: 7 points, 6 rebounds and 5 assists. And then in Corvallis on Saturday, he looked like he had ice water in his veins when he canned the game-winning shot, a long-range jumper, with 35.5 seconds left on the clock.

Hopson loaded for a three, pump faked Beaver Josh Tarver and then stepped up for the bucket.

"I saw Josh Tarver running at me full speed," Hopson said. "I've played against Josh all my life and I knew he was going to jump so I just pump faked, took a dribble in rhythm and took the shot. I didn't think twice about it."

Low was impressed all the way around. "He got a couple stops, steals and a strip -- and he had a big shot for us ... he's making good use of the time he's getting."

Says head coach Tony Bennett, "I always try and reward guys that are practicing well. I thought Mac's defense has improved, and I thought he had a really good week of practice leading up to that Oregon series. "Mac has always shown that he was capable offensively -- that wasn't the issue back when he started and helped us," Bennett added. "He's kept trying to improve defensively and (was) called upon to do the job. I think he did the job the last two games."

DEFENSE. WSU LIVES AND dies with its D and Hopson hit the bench when the Cougs got to the Pac-10 portion of the schedule because he lagged behind a defensive juggernaut built around players entering their third year of Bennett Ball.

"Everybody knew the system of defense here so I had a lack of experience," Hopson said. "He (Bennett) trusts me on the defensive end in the system now."

Playing time is the best route to experience, Hopson says, but time on the bench has its benefits. "Just watching Pac-10 players play I learned what I can do, what I can't do," Hopson said. "Just coming to practice every day working hard."

GROWING UP IN THE Northwest, Hopson said he dreamed of playing Pac-10 basketball. But after three stellar seasons at Jefferson High -– starring on the court and in the classroom –- the Pac-10 didn't come calling. For a time, he planned to follow in his dad's footsteps at Idaho, but instead opted for a season of JC ball in the hopes of getting his dream back on track.

He garnered first-team all-region honors a year ago at North Idaho College with his 14-point average and 64 steals. And doors across the country started to open.

But when WSU came knocking, he didn't hesitate.

"I grew up on the West Coast, so I always wanted to play in the Pac-10," Hopson said. "I wanted to be a part of an up and coming program like this and it's working so far."

He said he noticed the Cougars were something special right away. "We've got a lot of chemistry, everybody loves everybody," Hopson said. "I could sense it."

With the Pac-10 tournament next week and the NCAA tournament on the horizon, Hopson looks to be contributing to a team with big aspirations.

He has played most of his minutes at point guard but can work at shooting guard as well. Whatever he plays, he figures to be instrumental off the bench for a team heading to its first post-season play in 11 seasons.

"I'm going to come in and give us a lift off the bench," Hopson said. "Whatever coach wants me to do, I'll do. I want to contribute to the team and help us win."

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