PULLMAN — At some point before the season began, Kyle Smith took a break from designing plays for Washington State’s basketball team and put his literary juices to work, penning a short victory poem for the Cougars.
The lyrics sounded a little sweeter Sunday afternoon, and it’s no wonder why.
On the back of a career-high 34-point outing for sophomore CJ Elleby, the Cougars were able to strong-arm their rivals from the other side of the state, beating Washington 79-67 in front of 4,866 fans on the day the school lifted George Raveling’s name into the Beasley Coliseum rafters.
WSU’s players and coaches formed a semicircle, sandwiching Raveling between Jeff Pollard and Carter Sonneborn, and busted out into song, while standing adjacent to the crimson banner embroidered with the coach’s name.
“We’re from Pullman, freaking Pullman, freaking Pullman and we don’t care,” they roared. “I would rather be from Pullman than a chump from anywhere. Go Cougs!”
At this point, Smith has authored more than poems in his first season as WSU’s head coach, and on Sunday helped lead the Cougars to their 14th win, topping the highest total by an Ernie Kent team. With at least nine more games to play, it’s already the most wins by a WSU team since 2011-12, and boosted the Cougars’ home record to 12-3 while dropping UW to 0-5 on the road.
Elleby was the game’s high scorer on Sunday, and surpassed 30 points for the first time in his career after flirting with it four other times this season — instances that saw the standout sophomore reach 27 points. The Seattle native was 9-of-16 shooting from the field, 6 of 9 from beyond the arc and 10 of 10 from the free-throw line. He also had 10 rebounds, three blocked shots and two assists.
“I was just focused on getting the win,” said Elleby, who was offered a scholarship by the Huskies out of Cleveland High School, but chose crimson over purple when UW started backing off the long, crafty forward. “I knew every possession mattered and whenever I took a shot, it did feel good.”
“He’s CJ Elleby,” added teammate Noah Williams, before giving a shrug.
Williams, another Seattle native and UW offeree who drew motivation from the opposition’s jersey color, scored 10 points, but was WSU’s top defender, contributing three steals and six rebounds.
“I see nothing but red,” Williams said of playing the Huskies. “Both my sisters went there, so I definitely have a lot to talk about tonight in the family group chat.”
On paper, the Cougars didn’t have the size, length or athleticism to counter UW’s frontcourt duo of Isaiah Stewart and Jaden McDaniels — five-star recruits who could be NBA lottery picks this June — so they relied on defensive grit and discipline, holding the freshmen to 27 combined points on just 9-of-23 shooting.
In beating UW for just the third time in his career, WSU senior Jeff Pollard played rugged defense on Stewart and nearly emerged with a double-double, scoring eight points to go with 10 rebounds.
“Last home game against UW, you’ve got to go out with a bang,” Pollard said. “Really tried to focus this week, knew (Stewart) was going to be physical. You just watch it on tape and he’s one of the most physical guys in the league, in the country, so just really stepping up and not letting him get comfortable and getting his looks.”
The Cougars pushed their lead to 10 points in the first half, but conceded it not long after the Huskies sped off on a 9-0 run and held WSU to 11 consecutive missed field goals. After trading the lead, WSU and UW fell into a 36-36 deadlock before Elleby buried a 3-pointer and Isaac Bontor answered with a jump shot at the halftime buzzer to make it 38-33.
A personal 7-0 run from Elleby allowed the Cougars to establish an eight-point lead in the second half — the 6-foot-6 forward swiveling through purple traffic, pulling up from 3-point range and rising up to grab rebounds.
“I thought he had, like, 20 (points), I didn’t realize it was 34,” Smith said. “It was big, every one of them was big. He played great.”
UW fluttered down the stretch, sending the Cougars to the free-throw line 18 times inside the final 10 minutes. As a team, WSU finished 24 of 28 from the free-throw line and the Cougars made their final 11, effectively sealing the win well before the final buzzer sounded.
WSU’s smaller lineup also managed to outrebound UW 44-33, which included a 13-8 edge in offensive rebounding.
“As good as their zone is, one of the weak points is boxing out and trying to get defensive rebounds,” Pollard said. “We knew we could get in there and get extra possessions, so that was just something we focused on, talked about every day in practice, just getting on the glass, putting pressure and getting more looks.”
The next challenge for WSU (14-10, 5-6) is to win on the road. The Cougars, 0-4 away from home this season, finish with five of seven games away from Pullman, starting next Thursday against UCLA (13-11, 6-5) at Pauley Pavilion.