Amid rubble of loss to Zags, Iroegbu is a gem

IKE IROEGBU

SPOKANE – The 13th-ranked Gonzaga Bulldogs toyed with the Washington State Cougars much of the way Thursday night, but a shiny gem emerged from the rubble of a 90-74 loss. "Fearless" WSU freshman point guard Ike Iroegbu put on a dazzling performance, particularly in the first half.

Ike Iroegbu led the Cougars with season highs of 20 points, six rebounds and four assists, and he made only two turnovers in 26 minutes.

"He's fearless, man," Cougars tri-captain DaVonte Lacy said. "He's going to be good. Ike's going to be really good."

"We think he has a chance to be a special player," WSU coach Ken Bone said. "He's an unbelievable person. He's the type of guy that teammates like to see successful."

PHOTO GALLERY AT BOTTOM OF STORY

Iroegbu, playing before a sellout crowd of 6,000 at Gonzaga's McCarthey Athletic Center, hit 6 of 11 field-goal attempts with a nice mix of jump shots and daredevil dashes through the lane. He went 2 for 3 from beyond the 3-point arc, and he buried all six of his free throws.

"I love what he's doing," WSU forward D.J. Shelton said. "He's giving us the spark off the bench that we need.

"He's done everything that he can. He's playing aggressively, attacking the rim. He's very gifted athletically."

Iroegbu was so impressive, he coaxed a few "ooohs" and "aaahs" out of the famously fanatical Gonzaga student section. Gonzaga's loud-and-lively students have distracted countless opponents over the years, but Iroegbu ate it up.

"They have a great crowd," Iroegbu said. "A lot of people. A great student section.

"When we were warming up, I just stuck to myself and just tried my best to block them (the GU students) out and stay within myself. Do what I'm used to doing and not try to do anything fancy."

Actually, some of Iroegbu's baskets and passes were plenty fancy. The California native honed his craft the past two years after transferring to Virginia's Oak Hill Academy, a national prep powerhouse that has produced such NBA players as Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony and Rajon Rondo.

I've always liked big crowds," Iroegbu said. "I think when I went to Oak Hill, it prepared me for games like this.

"You'd go on the road, and everyone hates you. It's the team against the world."

The Cougars could certainly use a few road warriors. They finished 1-9 in true road games last season, and they've lost their last seven games outside Pullman, dating back to February.

Gonzaga (4-0) bolted to an 11-3 lead after three minutes and was never seriously threatened. Iroegbu scored 15 of WSU's 33 points in the first half, but the Cougars (2-1) trailed 49-33 at the break.

"It was time to play the big boys on their home court," Bone said. "They gave it us, no doubt about it. They were by far the better team."

Bone added, "We just don't have the experience right now to compete with a team at the level of Gonzaga."

Inexperience was not the only reason for the lopsided score, Bone said. The Cougars are attempting to apply more pressure defense this season, but the Bulldogs shot a sizzling 55.9 percent from the field (33 for 59), including 56.7 percent on 3-pointers (13 for 23). WSU shot 44.6 percent, including 32.1 percent from beyond the arc.

"We need to play better than that," Bone said. "You can't give up 90 points and expect to be in the game.

"And yet, it wasn't all on our defense. Sometimes it's poor shot selection that led to transition shots for them."

Kevin Pangos, one of 50 players named to the Naismith Award (national player of the year) Watch List earlier in the day, paced Gonzaga with 27 points. The junior guard lit up WSU for career highs of 33 points and nine 3-pointers two years ago, and he hit the game-winner in the final seconds last year in Pullman. He had 20 points by halftime Thursday.

"He's a great player," Iroegbu said.

"He's a smart player," Bone said. "He takes great shots. He lets the game come to him. He knows how to play."

So does senior point guard David Stockton. With father John in the stands, Stockton impressed his Basketball Hall of Fame dad by registering nine points, a career-high nine assists, three steals and no turnovers in 35 minutes.

"David was great," Gonzaga coach Mark Few said. "Nine assists and zero turnovers – that's like his old man's game."

"Stockton, he has a high IQ," Iroegbu said. "He's a great point guard."

Bone can only hope that Iroegbu and the other young Cougars learn a thing or two from watching top-caliber opponents. WSU returns to action Sunday at home against Texas Christian (3 p.m., Pac-12 Networks), then faces Butler next Thursday in the opening round of the Old Spice Classic in Orlando, Fla.

"We have to go back to the drawing board and clean some things up," Bone said.

"It's the third game of the year. It's a long year. Hopefully, we'll get better and better. Hopefully, we're as good as we can be in March."

Iroegbu certainly believes he has room for improvement after Thursday's game.

"I think I could have been better in certain areas," he said. "Defensively, I think I could have done a better job of containing their guards. I think I could have pushed the ball a little bit more in the second half like I did in the first half.

"I've just got to learn from this."

Bone said it appeared "the fatigue factor" affected Iroegbu in the second half.

"The decisions weren't quite as good," Bone said. "You're playing against a great team. It took a toll on him, so he wasn't as good in the second half.

"But all in all, he had a good game for a freshman."

Shelton and Lacy were quick to agree.

"He's going to have a great career here if he continues to do that (play like he did Thursday) and gets better)," Shelton said. "He's very coachable. He allows us older dudes to give him help. He's a great teammate."

"He showed what he can do," Lacy said. "On the other hand, he has a lot (of room) to grow.

"In four years, he's going to be something."

NOTABLE:

  • Gonzaga came into the day ranked 17th in the nation in scoring (91.7 points per game), seventh in field-goal shooting percentage (55.4) and 15th in 3-point shooting percentage (45.7).
  • Lacy was tied for 17th in the nation in scoring with 24.5 ppg. He scored 14 against the Zags on 3-of-8 shooting.

  • Shelton had a season-high 10 points. He and junior center Jordan Railey, an Iowa State transfer, made their first starts of the season. The 7-foot, 245-pound Railey, often battling 7-1, 295-pound Prezemek Karnowski, had five points and one rebound in 18 minutes.

  • Gonzaga senior Drew Barham had career highs of 17 points and five 3-pointers. Barham and Pangos both went 5-for-8 on 3's.

  • Gonzaga trails WSU 98-50 in the all-time series. However, the Bulldogs have won three in a row and 14 of 18. Gonzaga was favored by 15 1/2 points, which was a hair under the final margin of victory.
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