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This year there would be no need for late-game heroics. WSU blew out the Bears, cruising to a 93-81 victory.
Damian Lillard and Bamforth got things started offensively for WSU, hitting back-to-back threes in the opening stages of the game.
Lillard said the team came out aggressive, and that gave them an edge throughout the game.
“In the first half,” Lillard said, “we just came out aggressive on defense . . . we just wanted to come out and get after them. That’s what we want to start doing every game.”
The Wildcats were strong defensively early in the game, forcing three turnovers in the first three minutes of the game. In the first half, WSU scored 18 points off turnovers.
Darin Mahoney said WSU’s defensive play was key to the Wildcats’ win.
“I think it was real big,” Mahoney said. “I didn’t really see the stats, but I know Damian was getting the steals up top.”
WSU’s fast start to the game forced the Bears into taking two early timeouts, as the ’Cats jumped out to a 17-4 lead.
The Bears started to mount a comeback midway through the half. UNC was led by strong 3-point shooting and came within six points before Gelaun Wheelwright hit a teardrop shot and drew a foul to push the Wildcat lead back to nine.
With five minutes to go in the half, Lillard got the ball off of a turnover and drove down the court, hitting a circus shot layup, which brought the crowd to its feet and extended WSU’s lead to 14 points.
Head Coach Randy Rahe said he noticed at the start of this week that Lillard was more relaxed and in a good frame of mind.
“I could see on Monday of this week,” Rahe said, “he took the court in practice with a smile on his face, and I saw the energy back on his face.”
With a second left, Lillard hit a three to close out the half for the Wildcats. At the break, it was 54-35. Lillard led WSU with 12 points in the half; Bamforth had 11 points in the half. WSU led for the entire first half.
Early in the second half, Lillard made his second circus shot of the night when he drove to the hoop, changed the direction of his shot midair and got the basket to fall to push WSU’s lead to 23 points.
Lillard once again took control of the game in the second half, scoring 33 points after halftime. He said he is able to get open looks by first creating shots for his teammates.
“Teams focus on me a lot at the start of the game,” Lillard said, “and I’ve noticed it. The best thing I can do is to get my teammates involved. . . . They kind of got worried about everyone else, and that’s when I took advantage.”
The Wildcats opened up their lead in the second half, blowing out the Bears. Midway through the half, the Wildcats took a 71-52 lead over UNC.
Twice late in the game, Lillard heard chants of “MVP” from the crowd, as he led the team with 35 points.
Mahoney said that, after playing with Lillard for so many years, he has gotten used to seeing him make big plays.
“I remember there was one game last year,” Mahoney said. “Damian had about five threes in a row. We were shooting foul shots, and one of their big guys leaned over to me and said, ‘Does he ever miss?’ I didn’t think him hitting all those shots was anything special.”