PULLMAN – There were dunks at the end of the losing streaks, both of them toppling in the same instant after Washington State’s most improbable victory of the season.
There were the hapless, tough-luck Cougars, for once dunking and laughing and smiling their way to a win. There was Ben Howland, standing with his arms folded, out of timeouts and out of hope as D.J. Shelton twice dribbled past the indifferent Bruins defense for a pair of last-minute jams that served as two exclamation points.
Hey, when you do something that hasn’t been done since 1993, extra punctuation is necessary.
WSU didn’t have senior guard Mike Ladd, out with a left knee injury. It also didn’t have starting guard DaVonte Lacy, whose torn meniscus – while not tremendously serious – will keep him out for the rest of the season.
But in this 73-61 win over No. 23 UCLA (22-8, 12-5 Pac-12) before 4,268 at Beasley Coliseum, the Cougars had their pride, and they had reason to celebrate for the first time since January.
The win ended a nine-game losing streak. It also put a halt to UCLA’s 19-game road winning streak over WSU, one of the more remarkable droughts in the Pac-12.
“It’s a huge confidence-builder,” said WSU coach Ken Bone, whose team improved to 12-18 and 3-14 in Pac-12 play, “that we can continue to do the right things and pull out a victory by doing that.”
Fans were starting to wonder. WSU had lost nine games in a row, players vowing after each setback – many of them decided by single-digits – that eventually, they were going to put it all together and start winning some games.
This one started with a 25-4 run, the Cougars slicing UCLA’s man-to-man defense with a barrage of back-cuts and screens that led to a great many easy layups.
Even Lacy contributed from the bench, suggesting to an assistant coach that the Cougars run a certain play – a back-cut to Dexter Kernich-Drew – that he thought would work. It did.
“They were playing so tight, all we had to do was screen them,” said senior forward Brock Motum, who scored 20 points and grabbed 11 rebounds with his parents, sister, coach and three friends from Australia seated behind the WSU bench. “Once we set good screens, guys were wide open and we just had to make the passes.”
Even when the Cougars missed, they usually got it back.
They dominated UCLA all game on the glass, outrebounding the bigger, more athletic Bruins by a 46-23 margin, claiming almost as many offensive rebounds (21, off 29 missed field goals) as UCLA had total.
No wonder the Cougars outscored the Bruins 44-20 in the paint.
Kernich-Drew was a surprise leader in that effort, grabbing a career-high 11 rebounds to go along with 11 points. He also played 39 minutes as WSU used a seven-man rotation with Lacy sidelined. Motum and Royce Woolridge both played the entire game.
“We’re not the biggest team, so we’re going to do whatever we can to try to scrap and win the game,” Kernich-Drew said. “Mike wasn’t playing, DaVonte wasn’t playing. … I just tried to do what I could do out there, get as many boards and secure the ball for us.”
Because he and his teammates were so proficient in that area, the late-game collapse didn’t happen this time. The Cougars had their lead trimmed to 37-31 early in the second half, but built it back to 14 with 7:12 to go after back-to-back buckets by Woolridge and Motum.
And despite WSU’s 17 turnovers – a bunch of them in the final minutes once the desperate Bruins started pressing – UCLA never got closer than eight points the rest of the way, as WSU made nine of its final 10 free-throw attempts.
Will DiIorio delivered the final blow, taking a long pass from Motum, dribbling and jamming on Kyle Anderson as he was fouled.
The sparse crowd erupted. WSU led 69-57 with 1:17 to play. UCLA was done, the giant slain, the streaks history.
“We’ve been scrutinized quite a bit – how bad we are, we’ve lost this game and that game and how we lose the games and everything else,” Bone said. “It’s nice to go out and beat a quality team and play good basketball.”
“It could have been easy to give up a long time ago,” Motum said. “I’m proud of these guys.”