Close, but no tobacco product. As has been the case against good teams a few times this season, a bad stretch spelled doom for the Washington State Cougars. Thursday night it came in the first half of their 61-59 defeat at the hands of the 13th-ranked UCLA Bruins. The Cougars trailed by as many as 15 in the second half but their comeback was thwarted by Darren Collison on one end and the inability to make one more play on the other. Read on for the unedited version of my game story.
PULLMAN – It wasn't a furious rally, but it was an effective one, though ultimately, it came up a play short.
Trailing by 15 points with 17 minutes left, Washington State relentlessly clawed back, possession by possession, against its old nemesis, UCLA. The Cougars tied the game with 5 minutes left, only to fall back by four again. They rallied once more, and had a chance to tie or win on the game's final possession.
But Marcus Capers' 3-pointer under duress as time ran down didn't draw iron and the 13th-ranked Bruins survived, 61-59, at Beasley Coliseum.
It was UCLA's 16th consecutive win in Pullman, the Bruins ninth in a row overall over WSU.
Capers, a freshman who made his second start Thursday night, wasn't the Cougars (11-7, 3-3 in Pac-10 play) first choice on the out-of-bounds play under their basket with 4.4 seconds left.
And it wasn't WSU's first chance.
The Bruins' Darren Collison ruined that, getting a hand on Taylor Rochestie's pass aimed at an open Klay Thompson with 4.6 seconds left. The deflection forced a reset, and the Cougars ran another out-of-bounds play.
Thompson was the first look again, coming off Caleb Forrest's screen, but he wasn't open. Either was center Aron Baynes. But, unbeknownst to Rochestie, Forrest had come free right under the basket. Most of the 8,434 at Friel Court screamed, but to no avail.
Rochestie, who already had six assists, opted to throw the pass out to Capers, who had to attempt his first 3-pointer – and fifth of the year – as the clock ran out.
"We thought they would switch the out-of-bounds play and they did," WSU coach Tony Bennett said of the final seconds. "Klay was really open, but the ball got deflected. ... We changed it the second time and Caleb was open. Then we just had to bail out and had to take a desperation shot at the end."
So how do you rally from a 15-point deficit against one of the nation's best teams? The Cougars had tried last year by raining 3-pointers in the final 1:46 at Pauley Pavilion, pulling within three at one point before losing 81-74.
Thursday night it took an explosion in a time-out huddle, a defensive switch and the not-so-simple act of making some plays on offense.
Most of the latter came from Forrest, the senior who finished with a career-high 19 points, hitting 8 of 9 shots.
"If you make your first couple, it just feels like it gets easier," said Forrest of his career-best shooting night.
Forrest's final five points climaxed an 11-0 second-half run that ended with his second 3-pointer – also a career high – tying the game at 53 with 5:12 left.
That was when Collison took over. The senior, who leads UCLA (15-3, 5-1) in scoring and has led them to three Final Fours, had been biding his time, content to let Nikola Dragovic, with a career high 20 points featuring six first-half 3-pointers, pace the offense.
"I wasn't forcing the issue, I wanted to take my time and see what I had," said Collison, who had six assists, five in the first half as UCLA opened a 36-23 lead.
But passing wasn't an option late, as WSU switched screens, forcing the 6-foot Collison to attack with the game on the line. Three times in the final 5 minutes he drove against Baynes. Once he converted two free throws and twice he hit shots, the last from about 8 feet over the 6-10 Baynes and pumping the lead back to 59-55 with 2:41 remaining.
"They were tough shots," Rochestie said. "He's a big time player. He's the point guard for their team, he's led them to (three) Final Fours, Pac-10 championships. Their coach put it in his hands and he made plays."
Baynes, who finished with 15 points and 10 rebounds, his third consecutive double-double, countered Collison's last hoop with an inside bucket before Alfred Aboya's two free throws at the 2:10 mark gave UCLA its final points.
Rochestie found Capers for a driving layup 70 seconds later and, when Dragovic's 3 came up short with 20 seconds left, WSU had a chance for its biggest upset of the year.
"We knew they were going to make a run," UCLA coach Ben Howland said. "Every time we play Washington State it comes down to this. It comes down to tough possessions down the stretch."
Some 17 minutes before, Bennett was tossing his clipboard on the floor and leaving a time-out huddle after loudly challenging his team to toughen up. Down by 13 at half, WSU was just treading water, trailing 42-27 and Bennett was furious.
"Taylor's our leader, so he got up and told us to listen to the message," Baynes said. "They're going to get mad, it's going to be intense like that, especially in a big time game. ... He told us to knuckle down on the defensive end and listen to the message not the words."
The message had been the same all week, but it didn't seem like it sunk in, especially during the last 5 minutes of the first half. Leading 20-17, UCLA went on a Dragovic-fueled 16-4 run – the junior from Serbia hit four 3-pointers – to open a 15-point edge.
"I know him and that's his game," said Nik Koprivica, a teammate during the summer. "He plays kind of the power forward, but he is really quick for our 4s."
It was Forrest who was the victim most of the time, as Dragovic, who came in hitting just 29 percent of his 65 3-point attempts, would screen then fade to the line. After helping, the WSU bigs just couldn't get back.
"Nikola's 3s in the first half were key for us getting out to that big lead," Howland said.
NOTES: Forrest came in for effusive praise from Bennett. "Are you saying he doesn't strike the fear of God in those people when they look at him," Bennett said when asked if Forrest gets overlooked by most defenses. "He's a scorer, he just has a noise for the basket. ... He's got heart. He's one of the toughest kids I've been around. I hope our young kids take note of that because that's what's required here, if you want to play at Washington State." ... Forrest had his hands full with Dragovic, partly because of UCLA's offense. "They do a really good job of when they ball screen and pop of spreading the floor so you have no help really," Forrest said, "without opening something else up. I feel like a lot of times I was trying to sprint back to him. When you've got somebody who is as good a shooter as him, you can't give him any room." ... UCLA blew a big lead to Arizona State last weekend and Collison wasn't about to let it happen again. "We had to get something out of our last possessions," he said of his six-point spurt late. "We didn't get anything in the ASU game." ... So what did WSU get out of its comeback? "I was proud of our guys for fighting back," Bennett said. "But you can't spot that kind of team that kind of lead." ... "The second half, to be able to rally and come back on a team as good as UCLA, as good as they are executing, to be able to come back and do it together as a team," Rochestie said, "we made some steps forward. But we need to be able to do that for 40 minutes." It not something the Cougars have been able to do against good competition this season.
• That's it for tonight. We'll be back in the morning with links, thoughts and more notes. Till then ...