WSU (19-14) hung around with UCLA (24-6) through much of the first half, as the two teams were tied with 6:32 to go. But the Bruins’ length and depth began to separate the eighth-ranked Bruins from the Cougars, as they finished the half on a 19-7 run to take a 12-point lead into the half before building a lead after the break that reached up to 20.
The Cougars were again without freshman phenom Mouhamed Gueye, who is still dealing with an ankle injury he suffered in practice before the tournament.
Despite the loss of Gueye, the defense looked up to the task early. The Cougars limited the Bruins’ high-octane offense and matched buckets on the other end. Tyrell Roberts gave WSU a two-point lead with a three-pointer at the 9:34 mark. WSU’s defense sank UCLA into nearly a four-minute scoring drought, but unfortunately the UCLA scoring drought aligned with a nearly five minute scoring drought from the Cougars. It was UCLA who took advantage of the scoring drought, going on a 21-2 run over five and a half minutes to flip WSU’s two point lead into a 17-point UCLA lead in the blink of an eye. A Dishon Jackson and-one, followed by an acrobatic lay-up from Michael Flowers before the buzzer, cut the lead to 12 at the half.
WSU showed signs of life to begin the second half. Efe Abogidi recorded a bucket to open the half and Andrej Jakimovski followed it up with his third trey of the game to pull the Cougars back within seven. Cody Riley and Jules Bernard answered immediately with a bucket and three ball of their own to push the lead right back up to 12. The Cougars furiously tried to claw their way back in it with early offense but UCLA had an answer on the other end every time WSU scored. UCLA continued to use their size advantage to punish the Cougars inside, scoring 22 of their 35 second half points. Not only were the Bruins capitalizing in the scoring column, they outrebounded the Cougars 40-25 throughout the game as well.
As the half went on, UCLA began to turn one score answers into multiple-score answers, going on multiple four-to-five-point runs to build the lead up to 20 with 5:02 to go. In the final 62 seconds, Flowers recorded two free throws and TJ Bamba ended the game with a personal 8-0 run to cut the lead down to a more respectable 10 to end the game.
Pending a last-minute switch to allow Pac-12 super-fan Bill Walton to choose the tournament teams, the Cougars’ NCAA tournament hopes are over. But just because WSU didn’t hit their high hopes of reaching the Big Dance for the first time since 2008 doesn’t mean this season is a failure at all. The Cougars still won 19 games and likely will be playing postseason basketball. Considering where this program was just a few years prior, Kyle Smith still has program trending in the right direction. As frustrating as this season has been at times, WSU continues to get better every year and is on the doorstep of greatness.
The Cougars will now wait to see their postseason fate. The NCAA Tournament selection show will start a 3 p.m. on Sunday, with the NIT bracket reveal coming immediately after. If selected, WSU likely will be heading to the road next week with the first round happening on March 15-16.