PULLMAN – By the time he arrived to the press conference podium to talk about his first marquee win as Washington State’s basketball coach, Kyle Smith’s blue-collared shirt had been untucked, unbuttoned and the obvious victim of a locker room water bath.
Jeff Pollard, the senior forward and team captain who’d considered spending his final season elsewhere until Smith made a late plea to keep him in Pullman, was glad to deliver the drenching moments after the coach stepped into the victors’ locker room.
Smith might have been even happier to receive it.
“I brought my 6-year-old son in the locker room and he did not know what to do,” Smith said. “He was scared to death. But it was a fun time in there.”
If Smith’s mangled dress shirt didn’t capture the aftermath of the coach’s first Pac-12 win at WSU – a 79-71 overtime thriller against UCLA – the coach’s wide grin sure did.
The Cougars trailed by as many as 11 points in the second half against an upstart Bruins team that was still riding a wave of confidence after an upset win at Washington two days earlier.
Looking to bury WSU at Beasley Coliseum and complete the Evergreen sweep, UCLA instead got a late challenge from an unconventional Cougars lineup – one that featured sparingly used freshman guard Ryan Rapp, backup forward Tony Miller and defensive specialist Noah Williams, another rookie.
The Cougars trailed by 10 points when Rapp checked in and led by one nearly 5 minutes later – a 13-2 burst giving WSU all the momentum it required to take Mick Cronin’s Bruins down to the wire.
That’s when CJ Elleby, who’d made just 5 of 33 shots in league play, finally broke out of his offensive funk – and at a dire time, too, with the Cougars trailing by three points. Isaac Bonton penetrated, but swarmed by Bruins, the guard kicked out to Elleby on the left corner.
“Coach has got some gems, he’s really got some stuff stashed in his head somewhere,” Bonton said, explaining the play design. “He drew up a nice play for us and I just wanted to get eyes on the rim, focus on trying to go to the basket and take it off CJ. We had a flare screen for him in the corner and I got those guys up in the air and dished out to him.
“CJ’s a big-time player, you guys already know that. So just having faith.”
Elleby lined up a 3-pointer to tie the game. The Cougars followed with a savvy defensive play on the opposite end when Williams poked the ball away from UCLA’s Chris Smith with just a few seconds on the clock.
“The defensive potential for him, it could be the top in the Pac-12,” Bonton said of Williams. “I could see him as the Defensive Player of the Year someday. He’s been big for us, stepping up and being locked in every game. That’s all you can ask from a freshman coming in, just to be locked in and compete hard every day. His length and quickness and athleticism is out the roof.”
Williams kept the clamps on the Bruins in overtime, while a second Cougar worked himself out of an extended offensive slump. Bonton, who came in shooting just 30% from the field, combined crafty ball-handling with clutch shot-making to score eight points in the overtime period and finish with a team-high 17. The Casper (Wyoming) Community College transfer, formerly a Montana State Bobcat, tacked on five rebounds and five assists.
“A lot of people say I’m in a slump, but I don’t really believe in a slump,” Bonton said. “I work hard every single day, get in the gym two hours before the game, two hours before practice (and) try and get as many shots up (as I can).”
Rapp didn’t boast better numbers, but his time on the floor had more impact than any other Cougar. The Melbourne native, who’d previously committed to Smith at the University of San Francisco, logged a season-high 12 minutes and finished as a plus-16.
“I’ve been watching (UCLA) my whole life,” Rapp said. “It’s really an honor to be able to play against UCLA. I didn’t really think I was going to get to this point at all, and I’m just lucky to be where I am today with all these good teammates I have.”
Elleby finished with 15 points and went 5 of 5 from the free-throw line, Jaz Kunc has 12 points and Miller scored in double figures for the second straight game, chipping in 11 and a team-high six rebounds.
Smith led the Bruins with 22 points, on 8-of-14 shooting, while Prince Ali had 11 and Jules Bernard scored 10.
“I’m really proud of them, because your team can get really get divided on those things,” Smith said. “We’re not shooting the ball well, we’re definitely pressing. CJ and Isaac, they didn’t shoot the ball well and we looked at film and said, ‘Let’s try to play better.’ … But at halftime we said, ‘Let’s keep believing.’ We were competing hard. … We just kept at it.”
The Cougars (10-5) go on the road next week to play Cal on Thursday and Stanford on Saturday. Both games will be televised on the Pac-12 Networks.
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