WSU nearly took advantage of an uncharacteristically bad shooting night from UCLA on Saturday to pull what would have been one of the great upsets in program history, but the Bruins were able to tap into their offensive juggernaut for just long enough in the second half to beat the Cougars at Pauley Pavilion, 77-68.
The Cougars finish the regular season at 13-17 and 6-12 in the Pac-12, which puts them in a tie for 9th place with Stanford.
All signs pointed to this one being a runaway victory for the No. 3 Bruins, but as they so often have this season, the Cougs displayed a lot of heart in bouncing back from a poor performance the game before.
The game was tight early, but UCLA got out to a 24-16 lead after an 8-0 spurt over a couple of minutes that was capped by a Lonzo Ball 3-pointer. It was the sort of run the Bruins often use to demoralize an opponent by daring them to keep up at UCLA’s pace, which almost nobody can.
But WSU worked hard to maintain contact, wisely avoiding attempting to match the UCLA’s style. The Cougars did push the tempo when the opportunity presented itself, but more often, they forced the Bruins to defend in the halfcourt, and were able to convert enough baskets — while UCLA missed more shots than normal — to keep the game from getting out of control.
Then, suddenly, the Cougs were back in it. With just under four minutes to go in the first half, Malachi Flynn hit a 3-pointer. Then Charles Callison hit a jumper for two of his game-high 25 points, and Josh Hawkinson hit a 3, and WSU had used an 8-0 run to close to within a point at halftime, 35-34. Astoundingly, they had done it while shooting just 38 percent.
WSU continued to battle throughout the first 10 minutes of the 2nd half, as Ike Iroegbu, Callison and Hawkinson combined for 13 points to lead the Cougs to a 1-point lead with just a quarter of the game left to play.
And then ... WSU just went cold. And UCLA caught fire.
The Bruins scored the next 14 points over four minutes as the Cougs repeatedly shot themselves in the foot. Missed 3 by Flynn. Turnover by Iroegbu. Missed layup by Robert Franks. Missed jumper by Flynn. Missed dunk by Franks. Two turnovers.
And like that, a game that felt as if it could be building to an epic conclusion was pretty much over at 64-51 with under six minutes to play.
Callison tried awfully hard to mount a comeback all by himself, scoring 13 points over the final 5:15. But UCLA’s cold shooting would not return, and the Cougs could get no closer than the final margin of nine.
“I felt like we lost our mental again in the game,” Ernie Kent said after the game. “Whatever reason late in the year. You can’t play a team the caliber of UCLA and have that moral slippage because we’re not playing for moral victories. We should have won this game.”
Your opinion of the veracity of the final sentence likely depends on how you view the impact of WSU having a slightly below average shooting night. Kent went on to lament all of the open shots that WSU missed, which was not a mischaracterization: WSU did, indeed, work the UCLA defense for a number of good looks, which they missed.
In particular, Flynn’s legs appear to have completely deserted him; the freshman point guard, who is just outside the top 10 in the conference in minutes played, was just 1-of-11 from the field, including 1-of-8 from 3-point range, where he typically hits nearly 40 percent of his attempts.
Then again, Callison and Hawkinson were a combined 7-of-10 from beyond the arc, and WSU was 33 percent as a team out there — only shade under the Cougs’ season mark of 36 percent. Had Flynn hit a few more and Iroegbu hit one or two more (he was 1-of-5), yeah, WSU would have made a game of it ... but it also would have been an out-of-character team performance. And it’s also highly questionable as to whether it truly could have fueled a victory.
That said, it sounds as if Kent’s comments are a reaction to his feeling of the criticism around his program. He pointed to this game — competitive for 30 minutes on the road against a top 5 team — as validation of the progress he’s made. This is from Cougfan.com’s transcription of Kent’s postgame radio comments:
“I can tell you what is accurately happening: If you can’t look at the performance we put forth down here, if anything negative is said about this performance, then people just don’t understand the game,” Kent said. “For us to come down here … and play as well as we did — controlled tempo, controlled the game, just missed shots — it’s an indication of where we’re going.”
In the near term, where the Cougars are going is to Las Vegas for the Pac-12 Tournament, where they will be the 10th seed by virtue of their head-to-head loss to the Cardinal. That’s a bummer, because now WSU will be forced to take on the surging Colorado Buffaloes — 8-3 in the conference with wins over Oregon and Cal since losing to WSU in Pullman — in the team’s opener on Wednesday. (Stanford, meanwhile, takes on ASU, which WSU has beaten twice.)
That game will tip off at 6 p.m. and will be broadcast on Pac-12 Networks.