HE DIDN'T SHOW it, not while the game was going on. But Cougar assistant Ben Johnson must have felt…
What? Cougs use suffocating D to rout Zags?
Things sure looked different on Wednesday night, as WSU showed in an 81-59 victory to end a two-year losing streak against Gonzaga on Wednesday at Friel Court. The Cougars, who earned their biggest win against their Spokane rival since a 75-53 win on Dec. 1, 1982, held the Bulldogs to 39.6 percent shooting from the field.
"It's special because it's a big in-state rivalry," WSU wing Klay Thompson said during a postgame radio interview. "I couldn't ask for a better game."
Gonzaga missed its first 10 shots and did not score until guard Steven Gray converted a 3-pointer with 12 minutes, 40 seconds left in the first half to cut the deficit to 8-3. WSU, which never trailed, extended its lead to 25-6 on a 3-point by freshman forward Patrick Simon with 7:18 left in the half.
"This Cougar defense here early in the game is so impressive," FSN analyst Marques Johnson said. "They're so active."
The Cougars (6-1) are not successful on the defensive end in the same manner as they were under the Bennetts. They used a combination of man-to-man and zone defenses to frustrate Gonzaga (4-4). That mix-and-match defense rarely served WSU well last season, but it seemed to frustrate the Bulldogs, who committed 24 turnovers.
"We thought we could zone them because they have a couple of good shooters and we could take them out," Thompson said. "If we play defense like that, we can play with anybody."
Two weeks ago, such a performance could have been dismissed as a small-sample size phenomenon. But there is evidence that the Cougars' defense actually is better than their offense at this point. College basketball statistical analyst Ken Pomeroy ranked WSU's defense 32nd nationally entering the game; its offense was 66th.
That defense allowed the Cougars to survive a difficult end to the first half when they missed their final 10 shots as the Bulldogs closed their deficit to 30-24 at intermission.
IT NEVER WAS close again.
Thompson, who had just three points at half, finished with 24 on 8-of-14 shooting.
He was equally impressive on the defensive end, where he had seven steals and also added six assists.
"He made a lot of positive things happen on the court," Bone said during a postgame radio interview. "He's becoming a well-rounded player. He's not just a shooter anymore — he's become a very good defender."
He said his players would not hesitate to shoot the 3-pointer against the Bulldogs, who allowed No. 21 Illinois to convert 12 of 23 shots beyond the arch in a 73-61 loss Saturday. The Cougars made 11 of 21 3-pointers, led by Thompson's four. Simon also made 3 of 5 from beyond the arch en route to 11 points.
Faisal Aden converted 6 of 12 shots and finished with 14 points. WSU shot 50 percent from the field.
The Cougars have an opportunity to continue their success at 7 p.m. Friday against Texas-Pan American at Spokane Arena.
"That's the test," Bone said. "We'll find out in about 48 hours."
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