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WSU flips the script, beats UCLA 81-73

After losing by 30 to the Bruins a month ago, the Cougs led this one by as many as 23.

PULLMAN, WA - FEBRUARY 11: Washington State guard Noah Williams (24) shuffles on defense during the first half of a Pac 12 matchup between the UCLA Bruins and the Washington State Cougars on February 11, 2021, at Beasley Coliseum in Pullman, WA.
WSU’s Noah Williams eyes UCLA’s Tyger Campbell.
Jack Ellis/CougCenter

Just one month after getting blown out in Westwood, the Washington State Cougars flipped the script against UCLA and beat the Bruins 81-73 in Pullman on Thursday night behind 26 points from Isaac Bonton.

The Cougs improved to 12-8 overall and 5-8 in Pac-12 play, which moved them up to 9th in the league, while UCLA dropped to 13-5 and 9-3, remaining second.

The game could not have been more opposite from the first outing, in which the Bruins shot the lights out from the get-go and effectively ended the game as a contest by halftime. In this one, it was the Cougars who played swarming defense and got out to a big lead that hit 23 points with 12 minutes to go.

DJ Rodman has been making the most out of his recent return to the starting lineup, and he was a major catalyst early on, hitting a trio of 3-pointers in the first seven minutes as the game see-sawed back and forth.

But when a Tyger Campbell layup tied the game with just under 13 minutes to go, it was Jaz Kunc’s turn to take over. First, he drove to the rim for a layup and a foul — which he converted from the line. Then a 3-pointer. Finally, following a Ryan Rapp layup and Bonton 3 ...

... Kunc hit another free throw and another 3 to finish off a 15-4 run that gave WSU an 11-point lead with just over six minutes left in the half, a lead that would sit at 10 heading into the break.

That’s when it was Bonton’s turn to do Bonton things. He had an excellent first half with 12 points, but it was in the second half that he started to do the things that make him so special — and so much fun.

The Cougars came out of the locker room with a 20-7 run that pushed the lead all the way to 23 points with just under 12 minutes to go, and Bonton scored 10 of those — including this ridiculous circus shot:

Mathematically, the game was more or less over at that point. UCLA was struggling to make shots, and their only legitimate frontcourt threat (Cody Riley) would foul out with more than 10 minutes left to play and the lead still sitting at 21 for WSU.

But ... nothing is ever totally easy for these Cougs. Faced with the choice of running an extremely inexperience freshman out at the center spot or going extremely small, UCLA coach Mick Cronin elected for the latter — and the Bruins turned up the pressure.

WSU struggled. Lacking Noah Williams, who fouled out shortly after Riley thanks to a series of ticky-tack foul calls, a lot of pressure was put on Bonton and Rapp to safely advance the ball. They did ok, more often than not, but there also were some frustrating turnovers mixed in — not a wholly unsurprising result from a team that makes it a habit to give the ball away.

But just as Rodman and Kunc stepped up in the first half, freshman TJ Bamba stepped up in Williams’ absence in the final 10 minutes. UCLA had closed the lead to 12 with just over 7 minutes to go when Bamba hit a 3 to push it back to 15. And with the game at 13 with about 4 minutes to go, he hit another 3 to extend the cushion back to 16.

WSU needed those points. Fueled by Cougar turnovers and some missed free throws, UCLA went on an 11-2 run to close to within 7 with 1:18 to play. Still an unlikely scenario to make a full comeback, but also a little too close for comfort for WSU fans who had visions dancing in their head of securing a rare blowout win over the Bruins.

Mercifully, WSU was able to get the ball in the hands of Bonton, who calmly made three of his final four free throws, and the Cougars cruised safely down the stretch to an eight-point win.

Bonton added 5 rebounds, 5 assists, a steal, and 4 turnovers to his 26 points, while Kunc finished with 13 points and 8 rebounds. Despite some late struggles with ball security, Rapp played a heck of a game, too, with 5 points, 8 rebounds, and 8 assists.

Much was made of how shorthanded UCLA was — particularly in the frontcourt — but what’s wild is that WSU more or less dominated the Bruins with Williams barely playing (12 minutes, 8 points) and Dishon Jackson coming off the bench for just 3 points in 17 minutes, still clearly hobbled by the leg injury he suffered on Saturday against Oregon State.

Andrej Jakimovski, who had been a starter until recently, didn’t play; Smith said he’s been battling a groin injury and that he needed to rest.

The Cougs will try to create a new win streak when the USC Trojans — winners over the Washington Huskies tonight — come to Pullman on Saturday.