The Washington State Cougars were poised to pop UCLA's NCAA tournament bubble on Sunday night, but the Bruins were able to assert their athletic advantage offensively in the second half and lock down the Cougars defensively to escape with a 72-67 win in Pauley Pavilion. Norman Powell was tough for the Bruins all game long, slashing to the basket for many of his game-high 28 points.
The final blow to WSU was truly dealt when a curious off-ball intentional foul was called on Cougar forward Junior Longrus. That gave UCLA two free throws and possession, which it converted to three points and a six-point lead with 31 seconds to play.
Fouls were a second-half trend for the Pac-12 referees once again. This time, UCLA and WSU combined for 32 attempts in the final 20 minutes after just 11 in the first. That turned what was frantic, fast-paced first-half action into a slog of a second half.
In my game preview I said WSU needed to hit 3s and "block the eff out" in order to beat UCLA. In the first half, they did both of those things en route to a 34-32 lead. The Cougars knocked down 5 of 10 3s in the initial period while limiting the Bruins to just two offensive rebounds on 17 chances. Josh Hawkinson was key to that effort on the glass while also contributing on the offensive end. He paced the Cougars with 21 points and 14 rebounds.
In the second half, the Cougars cooled down in both those areas. UCLA, led by big man Tony Parker, was able to grab 7 offensive rebounds in 16 chances. Meanwhile, WSU hit just 3 of 12 3-point attempts.
DaVonte Lacy had an all-around effort in the loss for the the Cougars with 19 points, five rebounds and five assists. His third three put him above Klay Thompson for WSU's all-time 3-pointer record.
Overall, it was the offense that failed the Cougs. The Bruins were held to just 1.03 points per possession, below their Pac-12 average. But the Cougars could muster just 0.96 points per possession themselves.
In the first half, turnovers were almost solely to blame for the offensive struggles. WSU gave it away 10 times on 36 possessions, many of which were unforced travel calls and bad passes. In the second half, the turnovers came less frequently, but WSU just couldn't hit shots - posting a 44.6 effective field goal percentage.
Dexter Kernich-Drew, who had been on fire for the past five games, was the poster child for the shooting struggles. The senior was just 2 of 11 from the floor, including 1 of 7 on 3-pointers.
WSU now returns home for its final two regular season games. Utah is first up on Thursday evening.