Tekele Cotton dribbled toward the lane and no Memphis defender showed much effort to get in his way, like they didn’t believe him capable of the destruction to follow. He kept dribbling while Shaq Goodwin and Austin Nichols watched, then rose up over a half-hearted effort by Goodwin to slam in a one-handed dunk.
Fred VanVleet screamed. Cotton looked pleased. Referee John Higgins, during a break seconds later, told WSU coach Gregg Marshall, “That was strong.”
Yes, it was. The 11th-ranked Shockers looked like a team waiting for a spark to pull away from Memphis. Cotton’s latest contribution to the highlight reel started an 11-point run that sent WSU on its way to a 71-56 win at the Sanford Pentagon on Tuesday afternoon.
His teammates see those kind of plays often, which didn’t dampen their enthusiasm.
“That was sick,” forward Darius Carter said.
“That was the big swing in the game,” guard Ron Baker said.
“That was amazing,” VanVleet said.
Cotton doesn’t bother to rank his dunks. His teammates placed Tuesday’s event equal to the one that ESPN put on a loop from a game at Illinois State last season. Cotton is playing with with his right hand wrapped to protect a jammed finger, or VanVleet explained, he might have applied more force.
“The lane opened up for me, and I just dunked it,” Cotton said. “That was a good one, because that’s my friend (Goodwin), who I know from Georgia.”
The dunk sums up the game in one moment. WSU’s defense summed up everything else in their 33rd straight regular-season win.
The Shockers (2-0) forced 24 turnovers and scored 27 points off those mistakes. They made life miserable for the Tigers guards, pushing them out of their offense and deflecting careless dribbles and lazy passes. Memphis (0-1) shot 40.8 percent from the field and made 2 of 9 three-pointers. Memphis coach Josh Pastner is rebuilding his backcourt and, other than junior Kedren Johnson, all of his guards made their NCAA Division I debut. Johnson, a transfer from Vanderbilt, sat out last season.
“We knew that they had young guards,” WSU coach Gregg Marshall said. “We thought we could get in them a little bit and we did. We turned them over, got a couple of deflections, couple of easy ones.”
Johnson finished with five turnovers and no assists in 12 minutes. Memphis’ starters combined for 13 turnovers and three assists. VanVleet grabbed four steals and Baker and Cotton each grabbed two.
On Friday, New Mexico State made 16 baskets and turned the ball over 20 times. On Tuesday, Memphis made 20 shots and committed 24 turnovers.
“We emphasize defense and rebounding all the time,” Cotton said. “And we’ve got good guards, Fred, Ron and myself, that are going to put pressure on those guards.”
Baker, after missing his first five shots, made 6 of his next 10 and scored 21 points and handed out six assists. VanVleet added 15 points with three assists, four steals and no turnovers.
Nick King led Memphis with 16 points.
Cotton’s dunk put WSU up 35-29. Baker followed with WSU’s first three-pointer of the season to keep the roll firing. Carter’s bank shot made it 40-29. Another three by Baker extended the lead to 47-31.
Memphis never recovered. The Tigers made a mild run to cut the margin to 14 points. WSU’s Ria’n Holland sank a three from the top of the key. VanVleet, after another Memphis turnover, converted a three-point play to make the lead 60-40.
Both teams worked on hard on defense in the first half and made open shots hard to find. Any drive to the basket was met by a thicket of big bodies, making it difficult to score in the lane. Neither team made a three-pointer. WSU made 12 of 32 shots and its six missed threes ran its streak to 0 for 17 in three halves of basketball.
Carter scored 10 points to lead WSU in the first half and VanVleet added seven. Baker missed his first five shots before making two late in the half to help WSU build a 29-22 halftime lead. The Shockers forced 11 turnovers and scored 10 points off those errors.
Goodwin played only four first-half minutes because he committed two fouls early in the game. Nichols and King both scored seven points for the Tigers, who missed 17 of their 24 shots and all three three-pointers.
WSU led 19-16 with 2:59 to play when its offense found some success. Carter scored on a one-handed spin move over a defender for a 21-16 lead. He scored over Nichols in the post for a 23-10 lead. Baker scored his first points on a runner in the lane and followed that with a layup after a Tigers miss for a 29-22 lead.