Blood pressure started to rise for the Washington State men’s basketball team and its supporters Tuesday night at Toyota Center in Kennewick as the team trailed Division-II Central Washington at halftime, but a late surge by Ike Iroegbu led the Cougars to an 81-76 victory over the Wildcats.
“Any little bit of success is big success for us right now,” WSU coach Ernie Kent said. “You’ll look back on this and people won’t care if it was Central or if it was Montana State (WSU’s opponent in its season opener on Friday), it’s the fact that you won those games. Now let’s look forward to bigger things.”
Iroegbu, a senior guard, had one point in the first half and added a field goal shortly after halftime before he was fouled on his way up to the bucket and landed hard on his back. After sitting out for a couple minutes, he came back onto the floor and proceeded to score 12 more points in the last 17 minutes of the game to help the Cougars (2-0) overcome a 42-36 halftime deficit.
“I just started focusing on what coach wants me to do, and that’s running the floor,” Iroegbu said. “So I just run the floor and (freshman guard) Malachi (Flynn) does a good job of finding me. Once he found me I just ran the floor and attacked the bucket.”
WSU coach Ernie Kent flipped to a smaller lineup in the second half — rotating four guards with senior forward Josh Hawkinson at center — which allowed both the offense and defense to keep up with the small and speedy Wildcats (2-1).
“In the first half we were hedging on the screens, which brought out the big guys and made people rotate,” said Hawkinson, who had 18 points and 12 rebounds to lead the Cougars while playing all 40 minutes. “In the second half we decided to go small and switch one through four and have the big guy stay home to help the guards.”
Flynn continued to be a major contributor in his second collegiate game, tying Hawkinson with a team-high 18 points and pulling down six boards.
“It’s not so much that he’s a leading scorer as it is that’s he’s growing into run the system and running the team, and understanding the different basketball at this level,” Kent said. “The most important thing is to understand the system, and the points will take care of themselves if he understands what we’re doing defensively and how to run the team offensively.”
WSU took its first lead of the second half at 48-47 on a Viont’e Daniels layup about 5 minutes into the second half, which capped a 6-point Cougar run. A 6-point run by Central gave the Wildcats the lead back momentarily, but WSU followed by outscoring CWU 17-2 over the next 5:30 — Iroegbu scored eight points in that stretch — to take a 65-55 lead that would never be relinquished.
Central managed to control the first half in a variety of ways
Jawan Stepney knocked down a couple of 3-pointers in the early going to lead a 4-for-6 start from beyond the arc for the Wildcats. Then 6-11, 280-pound forward Fuquan Niles caused some problems underneath for the Cougars, highlighting his six-point, seven-rebound first half with a tip-slam dunk over the back of Hawkinson.
And when all else failed for CWU, shifty senior guard Dom Hunter was able to break down the Cougar defense off the dribble drive.
Hunter led the Wildcats with 26 points, just shy of his 26.5 average through CWU’s first two games. Niles had a team-high 16 rebounds and checked in with 12 points.
Tuesday was the first of four consecutive games away from Pullman for the Cougars as they will head to the Virgin Islands for the Paradise Jam over the weekend. WSU will start the tournament against No. 22 Creighton, which knocked off No. 9 Wisconsin Tuesday.
“You talk about Creighton, that team is ranked for a reason,” Kent said. “We’re gonna have our hands full because they’re fast down the floor, they’re athletic, they’ve got great shooters, they have their size. They have everything we have, only they’ve had more success with their program.
“So the most important thing is how we step up on center stage and compete against that opponent. And sometimes, the adversity of facing an opponent like that will allow you to find your identity as a team, because you’re gonna have to battle.”
In addition to the heightened level of competition, a few Cougars are looking forward to a respite from the wind and rain of the Pacific Northwest.
“Growing up in California, I like to play in the sun,” Iroegbu said. “So going from here to the Virgin Islands, I can’t wait to get there.”
CWU (2-1) will face Dixie State at 2 p.m. Friday in Seattle.