PULLMAN – It was supposed to be UCLA’s superior length and off-the-charts athleticism agitating Washington State Wednesday evening.
Rest assured, those things often did in an 87-67 win for the Bruins at Beasley Coliseum.
But the Cougars (8-13, 1-7) didn’t lose their fourth consecutive game and seventh in Pac-12 play so much because they lacked a player on the roster capable of matching up with UCLA’s willowy, springy 7-foot-1 center, Moses Brown, or because they’re without the sheer talent or depth of a team that recruits the West Coast as well as anyone in the country.
A UCLA team that’s been bad from the 3-point arc and worse at the free-throw line managed to shoot 47 percent from the first area and 75 percent from the second. The Bruins’ final 3-point percentage was better than their season percentage (33) and still wasn’t an accurate depiction of how hot the visitors were when they put the game out of reach.
Prince Ali stepped into an elbow 3-pointer to give UCLA a seven-point lead going into the half. The Bruins were shooting 7 of 12 from downtown at that point, then canned three of their next tries in the second half to bump their percentage to 60.
“Coming in, we were scouting on them, trying to keep their 3-point percentage down and that was something we let get away from us,” WSU senior forward Jeff Pollard said. “And as soon as they hit a couple, they got their confidence going and that was something we never really lassoed back in.”
For WSU, there wasn’t much time to scout. The Cougars played at Oregon on Sunday. After a flight out of Eugene was canceled the same night, their return to Pullman was delayed by an entire day, essentially giving them 24 hours to prepare for a team that was ranked No. 21 in preseason polls.
WSU’s endurance and mental sharpness seemed to fade midway through the second half – and the shooting percentage also dipped – but the Cougars didn’t seem to think travel fatigue, or abbreviated study time, had any role in the loss.
“I definitely wouldn’t use that as an excuse,” forward Robert Franks said. “We’re all 18, 19, 20, 21, so at the end of the day, we’ve got fresh legs and we’re competitive, so you’ve got to be ready to come and play.”
The Cougars wanted to enforce a physical brand of defense to compensate for their lack of size against a UCLA team that features eight players standing 6-8 or taller. It might have been a decent blueprint any other night. The Bruins came in with the league’s worst free-throw percentage (60), but they connected on 18 of 24 despite constant heckling and taunting from one of the largest WSU crowds this season (2,497).
“That’s one of the biggest basketball teams I’ve ever coached against,” WSU coach Ernie Kent said, “with the exception of – I’ve coached against Kansas, coached against North Carolina that had that kind of length and that kind of size, too.
“It was a game where our margin of error was very small and we needed to play with energy, we needed to play with intelligence and I feel like we did it in spurts, particularly early on. … Then once the game got away, I thought we had some mental breakdowns defensively and that athleticism is hard to guard.”
The Cougars struggled in many of the same categories they have the majority of this Pac-12 season – one that’s seen them lose all seven games by double digits, and by an average margin of 22.2 points.
They turned the ball over 11 times had 13 assists. They shot less than 50 percent from the field for the sixth time this Pac-12 season. They failed to find steady scoring options behind Franks and CJ Elleby.
Franks, who’s still the Pac-12’s top scorer, will at least retain that title until the Cougars play next after pouring in 21 points. Elleby chipped in 15 points, though it came on 6-of-16 shooting.
“I kind of think we were forced to take long shots,” Franks said. “The game plan was to get it in the middle of their zone and they’re so long, it was difficult at times. At the end of the shot clock or when the offense was stagnant, we were kind of forced to throw up a long 3.”
UCLA had five double-digit scorers on a balanced night. Brown, Ali and Kris Wilkes each tallied 16 points, while Jaylen Hands and Cody Riley each had 10. The Bruins finished with a field-goal percentage of 58.8 and won the rebounding battle 36-23.