LOS ANGELES – The confluence of events that has to occur for Washington State to beat UCLA in Pauley Pavilion is so unlikely that it has happened just three times in the history of the series between the schools.
Even the most successful Cougars teams have had to play their very best games to win in the shadows of the 11 national championship banners that hang over Nell & John Wooden Court.
When WSU plays particularly poorly, or at least shoots as woefully as it did on Saturday, the results are predictably dreadful.
Saturday’s 83-50 defeat at UCLA, the largest margin of defeat in Ernie Kent’s two seasons coaching the Cougars, was the unsurprising result of WSU’s worst day shooting the ball this season.
The Cougars made just seven field goals in the first half, but managed to turn the ball over 10 times in those 20 minutes, and made just 33.3 percent of their field goal attempts all game. WSU took 24 3-pointers and made just five of them.
“We had good looks, we just missed shots,” said Que Johnson. “That could be from anything, tired legs or whatever. But we just missed open shots.”
The Bruins, on the other hand, made 45.8 percent of their shot attempts, thanks in part to easy shots created by WSU’s 18 turnovers, off which UCLA scored 21 points. Missed shots did not always mean wasted possessions for UCLA, either, which collected seven offensive rebounds and scored 13 second-chance points.
The Bruins also made 24 of 28 free throws; WSU only attempted 12 in the game.
“We would play good defense, and then we’d foul them with four or five seconds left on the shot clock,” said Ike Ireogbu.
WSU played solid defense throughout the first half, and by doing so kept in contact with the Bruins despite its difficulty scoring. But a series of particularly careless turnovers provided an opening for UCLA to create some space.
Conor Clifford had the ball in the post and tried to kick it out to a guard at the top of the key, but sailed his pass well over Charles Callison’s head, leading to a backcourt violation. UCLA’s Isaac Hamilton lost the ball, but Johnson turned it over once more, and Hamilton sunk a jumper shortly thereafter.
“We turned the ball over on the offensive end carelessly,” Kent said. “That was not communication or anything else that was poor ball handling. It got us in a hole, that coupled with the bad shooting. We could have lived with the turnovers if we’d knocked down shots. It’s very difficult to live with both turnovers and bad shooting.”
Part of WSU’s issue was an unusually quiet night from leading scorer and rebounder, Josh Hawkinson. Because Hawkinson is so consistent he has 15 double-doubles in 20 games he provides a certain statistical safety net for the Cougars.
But Hawkinson took only five shots on Saturday, scoring seven points and corralling six rebounds. Iroegbu led the Cougars with 16 and Johnson added 12, but even with only three made baskets Hawkinson was WSU’s third-leading scorer.
WSU (9-12, 1-8) has now lost seven consecutive games and finishes the first half of Pac-12 play alone in last place in the conference standings. After the loss to Colorado last week, Kent contextualized the season as just the second chapter of a novel, framing the losses as a series of lessons that will benefit the Cougars down the road.
After Thursday’s loss to USC he added that it was evident WSU is still improving. While Saturday’s 33-point drubbing provided scant evidence of such improvement, Kent maintained that the trip to Los Angeles was on the whole beneficial.
“Sometimes you’ve got to take a step backward to go forward, and that’s obviously where we’ve been,” Kent said. “When you lose DaVonté Lacy, all-conference player, Jordan Railey and (Dexter Kernich-Drew), two fifth-year seniors who know about the conference, know the competition and you bring in all these new guys, they have to go through it. They have to go through the season. You try to win as many games as you can, but sometimes you do have to take a step back to go forward again.”
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