LOS ANGELES – For the vast majority of Friday’s Pac-12 opener in the Westwood neighborhood of Los Angeles, the Washington State Cougars stuck closely to the victory formula that netted them a few high-quality wins and a tournament trophy in nearby Fullerton almost a month ago.
The Cougars dictated the tempo, they made 3-pointers at a fairly high volume and they were able to draw a couple of impressive showings from the guards on their bench, getting a career- best 13 points from Milan Acquaah and 17 more from Carter Skaggs, who jump-started WSU late with one of his signature three-point flurries.
But on the other end of the floor was an experienced UCLA team with two veteran players who were each hunting the 1,000-point career milestone on the same night. Aaron Holiday and Thomas Welsh both got there and they did much more than that to deliver a 96-82 win for the Bruins in front of 8,069 fans at Pauley Pavilion.
“Tough place for us to open up with this young of a team against UCLA and USC,” WSU coach Ernie Kent said. “You’re going to have to play them sometime and I thought my guys battled hard for having to be out there. … This is all new to these guys, to understand not only what the conference is like but the tradition of this building and the energy in this building. You can’t prepare that, you have to go through that.”
UCLA didn’t look like a team that was marred, depleted or embarrassed by the international shoplifting incident that took place in Guangzhou, China, at the start of the season and forced the Bruins to move on without three of their young players. And Steve Alford’s bunch, at least on this night, didn’t appear like a team that was missing the trio of 2016-17 stars who were selected in the NBA Draft.
Holiday, Welsh and blue-chip freshman guard Jaylen Hands might be the new trio – and they were an overwhelming one for the Cougars in the late stages of the second half on Friday night.
Holiday, the younger brother of NBA pros Jrue and Justin, scored a career-high 33 points and did the dirty work on the other end, pulling down 11 rebounds. Welsh, the senior forward who’s been a model of consistency for Alford’s program over the years, added 12 points and a game-high 14 rebounds. Hands, the talented rookie who can leap out of the gym at any time, flushed down an alley-oop in the first half and bombed the Cougars from the 3-point line toward the end of the second. He scored 19 points on 4-of-5 from long range.
“They have some McDonald’s All-Americans over there, but Holiday and Welsh were the two main guys,” said Skaggs, who made 5-of-8 3’s to spark the Cougars in the second half. “We just feel like we have to get tougher. We really talked about it. Just like against Kansas State, we lost by three after being down 19.”
This game was a different story.
UCLA led by no more than two possessions for most of the game and the Cougars brought the deficit to two points when Skaggs canned his fourth 3-pointer with 9:38 to play. The Bruins then pulled ahead by seven points, but Malachi Flynn dished an inside pass to Jeff Pollard with 7:16 left to make it a two-score game at 69-64.
But UCLA won the final seven minutes with a combination of toughness and finesse. Hands provided a lift with 11 straight points to make it 80-68 and the Bruins protected their double-digit lead by making 11 free throws in the final 2:48.
“Our kids are consistent, and they listen,” Kent said. “They can score the ball and they’re very coachable. But the main thing we didn’t get better at is toughness. Our guys need to understand that we have to make a tough play when a tough play is needed.”
The Cougars were without “point-forward,” Drick Bernstine, who wore a sweatsuit on the visitor’s bench and missed his second game this season with a tweaked knee.