But that's when the Cougs started to look inside, and particularly to DeAngelo Casto, who earned the first double-double of his collegiate career with 18 points and 14 rebounds in Washington State's 78-69 win.
Klay Thompson had kept the Cougs in it over the first 20 minutes, with 10 first half points. But apart from some early energy from Marcus Capers and Thompson, and some nice blocks to open the game, the Cougars looked flat in the opening half.
Casto, however, was about to heat up. And after five minutes in the second half, it was a completely different game.
In those five minutes, the Cougars pounded it inside to Casto, and crashed the boards with more energy on both ends. Thompson had a pair of steals in the first five minutes of the second half -- leading to five Cougar points.
Reggie Moore buried a trey on Thompson's second theft to put WSU up 42-38 with 15:06 remaining.
The Cougs never again trailed, and quickly built their advantage to 52-42 a few possessions later on a Thompson trey.
| A closer look at the Cougs|
IF YOU'RE AN optimist, you're thinking this was exactly the kind of game the Cougars needed. They got the win, but it also came with several lessons against Nicholls State (0-7) -- don't think you can just show up and win and protect the ball among them. |
If you're a pessimist, you saw evidence that this could be a difficult year. Washington State is painfully young, with but one senior and no juniors. And Nicholls State was in charge nearly all of the first half. What's going to happen when WSU plays some of the better teams in the Pac-10?
If you're a realist, the jury's still out. Young teams often play up, and down, to their competition. And the first real test of this season won't come until today's final. Other tests will follow, and give a clearer picture of just what kind of team the Cougs truly have in Bone's first year at WSU.
The first test was expected to be against No. 25 Oklahoma, but the Sooners were upset in not one but two games in their pool. And that means WSU will face San Diego (4-1), who scored a double digit victory over the No. 25 ranked team in the land.
San Diego is a solid, fundamentally sound squad that puts a premium on defense. Houston came in averaging over 100 points over their first three games, and were held about 35 points below that in a 72-65 loss on Friday night.
WSU will need to bring their energy, and show evidence of lessons learned, if they're going to win the tourney. Tip-off is at 8 p.m. PST.
• Klay Thompson has scored 20-plus in all five games this season, He's averaging 25.4 points per game.
• Casto's first career double-double was also the first time he's pulled down double digit rebounds.
• Casto, Thompson, Capers and Moore all scored in double figures.
• Nikola Koprivica has made a 3-pointer in all five WSU games.
• The Cougars trailed at halftime for the first time this season.
• How's this for consistency? Thompson has scored in double digits in every half this season, all 10 of them.
"We were lethargic, we just didn't get after it," said Ken Bone of the first half. "That was disappointing."
BUT ONCE THE Cougars built a 10-point lead, Nicholls State didn't seriously threaten the rest of the way, never getting closer than six, and trailing by as many as 11 on three other occasions.
As for Casto, he scored 12 of his 18 points in the second half, while grabbing nine of his 14 rebounds over the final 20 minutes.
The difference in the second half -- the Cougars started making the extra pass, and that opened up the paint. And Nikola Koprivica played a big part in that.
Koprivica scored nine points in just 20 minutes but the lift he gave WSU in the second half was huge, and evidenced by his three assists.
Moore had a "quiet" 14 points, mostly because a half dozen of his total came on 6-for-6 shooting from the line. But he was key in WSU's better passing effort in the second half. He dished off four assists on the night, bettered on the WSU squad only by Thompson's six.
Capers was also active. He began the game with two blocks in the game's first two minutes, and his soaring put-back late in the second drew one of the largest cheers of the night from the Sullivan Arena crowd. He finished with 10 points and five boards and played effectively over the final six minutes despite being saddled with four fouls.