PULLMAN – Once again Washington State proved surprisingly sticky while a top-team tried to shake them. And once again the Cougars were just a little too sloppy to spring an upset, falling 95-79 to No. 11 UCLA on Wednesday in front of 4,109 fans in Beasley Coliseum.
The Cougars (11-11, 4-6 Pac-12) were competitive well into the second half earlier this season in games against No. 15 Oregon and No. 7 Arizona. They only trailed UCLA by five points with 12 minutes left in the game. But when WSU turned the ball over or missed shots, the Bruins capitalized as the Cougars were unable to keep the Bruins frontcourt from scoring at will.
“We’ve just got to push through,” WSU guard Ike Iroegbu said. “When you play a team like that, they do a good job of making plays off your mistakes and that’s what they did today.”
Ireogbu led the Cougars with 20 points on 8-of-12 shooting, and was helped out inside by center Conor Clifford, who added 16 points while making 8 of 9 shot attempts. Josh Hawkinson contributed 15 points and nine assists.
But the Cougars couldn’t stop the UCLA frontcourt duo of Thomas Welsh and TJ Leaf. Welsh made 8 of 10 shots, many uncontested midrange jumpers, to score 17 points. Leaf, a freshman who has already won two Pac-12 Player of the Week awards, dominated with 32 points on 14-of-18 shooting, while also collecting 14 rebounds.
His 32 points are the second most by a UCLA freshman.
“You pretty much give him the ball and get out the way,” said UCLA point guard Lonzo Ball, who had 14 points, seven rebounds and seven assists. “I see it all the time in practice. Tonight was one of those nights he had it going and we kept going to him.”
Cougars coach Ernie Kent blamed the loss, or at least the team’s inability to stay competitive over the game’s final 10 minutes, on mental fatigue as well as physical. And the Cougars did have the harder week leading into the game.
While UCLA (20-3, 7-3) had not played since the previous Wednesday’s loss to USC, whom the Cougars will host Saturday, WSU played two games last week, including a Sunday matchup from which they did not return to Pullman until the early hours of Monday morning.
“I wish we could have given them a better game just in the energy department,” Kent said. “That being said, we hung in there, we had some opportunities, but we never got over the hump to put some pressure on them in the second half. It seemed like when we got right there, there was a mental breakdown.”
Those mental breakdowns primarily manifested themselves on defense and in the passing game. The Bruins scored 50 points in the paint, not because they pounded the ball inside but because the Cougars could not close out on Leaf and Welsh’s short interior jump shots.
WSU turned the ball over 14 times on offense, which led to 22 UCLA points because the turnovers frequently came in the backcourt, as the Cougars guards had trouble handling double-teams they have been able to pass out of in the past.
But for WSU, which has not beaten a ranked since the last time UCLA came to Pullman (Jan. 3, 2016) there were some encouraging developments as they gave a top-15 team a scare for the second week in a row.
Wednesday’s game was WSU’s best-attended home game of the year, and for the first time this season the Cougars had a full student section.
“On one side of it, we’re getting better. The program’s better, we’re playing better, the crowd’s better, the energy’s better,” Kent said. “But on the other side of it, to beat that caliber of team you’ve got to really be on you game and be razor sharp. We just weren’t good enough tonight to put ourselves in position to have that opportunity.”
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