NIKOLA KOPRIVICA: Never missed a shot
KENNEWICK -- When Tony Bennett abruptly resigned at Washington State last spring to become the new basketball coach at Virginia, and Ken Bone was named to succeed him, Nikola Koprivica may have been the happiest person in Pullman.
Not that Koprivica did not respect and appreciate what Bennett had done for him and the WSU basketball program. After all, it was Bennett who delivered the last-minute recruiting pitch that lured Koprivica to Pullman from his native Serbia. Koprivica admired the manner in which Bennett turned a woebegone program into one that twice won 26 games and once made it as far as the Sweet 16 round of the NCAA tournament.
Still, Koprivica longed to play in the type of wide-open, up-tempo offense that he had flourished in back home. Bennett, of course, stressed defense above all else, and Koprivica often failed to meet Bennett’s demands at the defensive end.
When Bone was introduced as Bennett’s replacement last April, Koprivica was one of several Cougars who openly expressed delight in Bone’s plan to speed up the offense. And Koprivica was never happier to be part of the Cougars’ new-look offense than on Saturday night, when he made every shot he took and nearly doubled his previous career high for points in a 93-69 rout of Portland State.
CHECK OUT Koprivica's stat line -- 23 points, 6 for 6 from the field, 5 for 5 from 3-point range, 6 for 6 at the free-throw line, three rebounds, two assists, zero turnovers... all in 21 minutes off the bench.
“It’s great to see,” Bone said after the Cougars (9-2) dazzled a sellout crowd of 6,286 at the Toyota Center. “Nik’s a senior and he’s worked really hard at Washington State and has not always been appreciated.”
Afterwards, WSU’s lone upperclassman was quick to credit his teammates for his career night.
“We tried to set as many ball screens as we can, because they’re not going to defend them really well,” Koprivica said in his matter-of-fact style. “Those guys were finding me. I was just wide open. I had to knock ’em down.”
KOPRIVICA WASN'T THE only white-hot Cougar.
WSU set a school record by hitting a ridiculous 81.3 percent from 3-point range (13 of 16), and the Cougars’ overall field-goal percentage of 63.5 (33 of 52) was a season high. Abe Lodwick was a smooth 5-for-6 on the night including 3-3 from behind the three-point line. Lodwick scored a career-high 13 points in his 16 minutes, bettering his previous high of nine at Alaska-Anchorage.
“We shared the ball extremely well,” Bone said. “We had 25 assists out of 33 made field goals. That’s a high, high percentage.”
Almost half of those assists were delivered from the rock-steady hands of freshman point guard Reggie Moore. One game after setting a season best with 10 assists against Air Force last Saturday, Moore handed out 12 helpers against Portland State.
| IN THE PAINT|
• The Cougars have won three straight since their only two losses. |
• Blood tests came back negative on freshman guard Xavier Thames. Bone had expressed concern about Thames’ lack of energy. He scored two points in 9 minutes Saturday.
• WSU’s DeAngelo Casto scored nine points and led everyone with 12 rebounds and three blocked shots. The 6-foot-8 post player earned raves from Bone for making a full-length dive to save a ball that led to a Thompson 3-pointer late in the first half, when WSU was clinging to precarious a three-point lead. “Those are plays winning teams make,” Bone said.
• One game after he never left the bench, redshirt freshman forward James Watson hit all three of his shots and tied his season highs of six points and 12 minutes. The Cougars hit their last nine shots in the first half.
• Fans at one end of the floor chanted “You’re not a state!” when Portland State players shot free throws. The Vikings fell to 0-7 all-time against WSU, and 4-42 against the Pac-10.
• Many fans were pleasantly surprised to find that beer was sold at the game.
• LSU is 0-2 on the road and lost most of the top players from last year’s NCAA tournament team. They are, however, 8-2 on the year. One of their two losses -- a 71-52 beatdown at the hands of Arizona State.
“I’m starting to realize where guys are on the court,” said Moore, who had four points and no turnovers in 29 minutes. “Certain guys like to go to certain spots, and certain guys like to catch the ball certain ways to get ready to shoot.”
WSU fans, players and coaches don’t even want to think about where the Cougars would be if Bone had not won a national recruiting war of sorts to sign Moore to a letter of intent last spring.
“Obviously, it made us much better,” Klay Thompson said.
Thompson, who has led WSU in scoring every game, was happy to share honors with Koprivica on Saturday. Thompson did not score in the opening 16 minutes -- credit Paul Guede with some quality defensive work -- but he scored eight points in the last four minutes of the first half to help the Cougars break open a close game.
The fact that Guede played good defense -- any defense, actually, -- was rather stunning. The Vikings are extremely lax on D, and WSU shooters frequently found themselves downright lonesome on the floor.
“We got exposed at both ends of the court,” Portland State coach Tyler Geving said. “They did a nice job.”
THE SELLOUT CROWD speaks volumes for how much the Cougar-mad Tri-Cities enjoyed watching WSU play in the area for the first time in 12 years.
As an added bonus, the young WSU women’s team hammered San Francisco 74-57 in the first game of the doubleheader. Several thousand fans turned out for the women's game (tickets were good for both games).
“The coaches and players had a great experience,” athletic director Jim Sterk said. “The crowd was into it, both the men’s and women’s. They were loud...That makes you want to come back. Whether we can schedule it and make it all work, we have to see each year.”
The home game was played outside Pullman because the WSU campus is largely deserted for Christmas break.
“You want to play all your games on your home court if you can,” Bone said, “but the reality of it is, we would not get a good crowd in Pullman at this time of year with the students gone.
“To be able to come to somewhere like Kennewick and the place is packed -- the people really, really appreciate us being here. I thought it was exciting.”
THE COUGARS PLAY their fourth straight home game in a different city Tuesday when Louisiana State (8-2) comes to Seattle for the fifth annual Cougar Hardwood Classic at KeyArena. The opening tip is set for 7 p.m. for a game that will be available to some television viewers on CBS College Sports.
The LSU contest marks the end of Washington State’s non-conference schedule. The Pac-10 is clearly going through a down year in basketball, but conference play still represents a big step up in competition for the young Cougars.
All that aside, it’s worth noting that the Cougars are averaging 80.9 points and shooting 50.8 percent from the field, 44.4 percent on 3-pointers and 72.9 percent at the line. The school records are 83.5, 51.7, 40.8 and 76.0, respectively.
Also, Thompson remains on pace to break Don Collins’ school record of 23.1 points per game in a season. Thompson ranks among the national leaders at 24.9.