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WSU Men's Basketball

No. 19 Washington State erases another double-digit deficit in 77-65 win over UCLA

PULLMAN – Myles Rice gave Kyle Smith a certain look. Washington State’s head coach had just taken his star guard out of the game, trying to steal a couple of minutes during Saturday’s home matchup with UCLA, knowing he probably couldn’t afford to do so later in the game.

“What are you doing?” Rice asked Smith.

“Like, I don’t know,” Smith said.

Smith didn’t make the same mistake twice, a key reason why No. 19 WSU erased a double-digit deficit to down UCLA 77-65 in Pac-12 Conference play.

Both of the Cougars’ leading scorers, wing Jaylen Wells and Rice, played all but 1 minute in the victory, their team’s second straight. It was a Quad 3 win for the Cougs, who have tied the program record for most conference wins in a season, with a chance to set the record with Thursday’s home game against rival Washington.

Washington State (23-7, 14-5), back within one-half game of first place in the Pac-12, earned the opportunity by following another sluggish start with a scintillating finish. Wells, who tied his career high with 27 points, kicked off the stretch that swung the game by hitting a 3-pointer, kick-starting an 8-0 run to give the hosts a five-point lead with 5 minutes left.

In that stretch, the Cougars seized control. The turning point came with 7:23 to play, when USC guard Will McClendon was assessed a flagrant 2 for hitting WSU forward Isaac Jones below the belt. In the moments that followed, Wells created a stepback 3 for himself, Jones finished through contact and wing Andrej Jakimovski – who is playing through a hurt shoulder on his shooting arm, Smith said – canned a 3-pointer, turning a three-point deficit into a five-point lead.

“Anytime a significant player on their team cannot impact the game anymore, I feel like that gives us another advantage, upside,” said Rice, who posted 18 points and four assists. “Jaylen started it off with the bucket, and I feel like we just fed off the crowd. The crowd was into it. We just did what we needed to do. That definitely played a part into it.”

The Cougs gave themselves a chance to respond by securing key stops on defense, which were in much shorter supply in the first half. UCLA guard Dylan Andrews scored seven of his 21 points in the second half, including a 1-for-5 showing from the floor in the second stanza. WSU also forced back-to-back shot-clock violations. After the second, Jakimovski brought Beasley Coliseum’s 8,096 fans to hysteria by drilling a wing 3-pointer.

“That was huge. Really, shoutout to the crowd,” Wells said.

“The crowd,” Rice said with a giant grin.

From there, UCLA hung within three or four, but WSU remained in control. Wells turned around for a midrange jumper. Rice stepped back for an even tougher midrange shot. WSU hit 12 of its 18 free throws in the second half – 24 of 33 in total – to hold off the Bruins and earn its 10th win in 11 tries.

At least in the second half, WSU did it on defense, particularly in 1-on-1 situations. That’s where UCLA often went on offense, forcing Rice to stay in front of Andrews, at least when the Cougs’ matchup zone called for it. Rice wasn’t perfect – he can be vulnerable against more physical guards like Andrews and USC’s Isaiah Collier – but he forced misses when it mattered.

“We’re in a league where a lot of these guys are probably four stars, five stars,” Rice said. “They’re highly recruited guys, so they know how to get to their spots and get their shots off. (Associate head coach Jim) Shaw, he’s gonna let us hear about it regardless. So you might as well just go out there and get a stop.”

Ironically, the Cougars started getting stops most when they went to one of their smallest lineups, which featured Rice, Wells, Jones, Jakimovski and true freshman guard Isaiah Watts, who scored six points in 15 minutes, fouling out with a shade over 3 minutes to play. Without either of their tallest bigs on the floor, Reuben Chinyelu and Oscar Cluff, the Cougs were faster.

It forced Jones to give up some size guarding UCLA’s 6-foot-10 Adem Bona, but Jones held up well against him. That allowed WSU to spread the floor and get out and run, which worked like a charm. It freed up the Cougs to score in ways that aren’t possible with Cluff and Chinyelu, both of whom lack a perimeter game, allowing defenses to sag off and muck up the spacing.

It’s something of a revelation for Smith, who hasn’t rolled out that lineup much because he hasn’t always trusted Watts on defense. He’s a slender freshman, and at times this season, he has looked the part. Opponents have targeted him on defense, and with such a short leash, Watts hasn’t always had opportunities to stay on the floor long enough to impact the game with his scoring.

That is changing. Watts played 16 minutes last weekend against Arizona State, 28 on Thursday against USC and, if not for his foul trouble against UCLA, he would have played more than the 15 minutes he saw. It’s giving Smith a chance to play a new lineup centered around scoring, which Watts is doing well, including 18 points on Thursday.

“That one’s really hard to guard, period,” Smith said of the lineup featuring Jones at center. “When you go Isaiah, Myles, Jaylen and Andrej, it’s a lot of shooting out there. And then Isaac – it gives him a little room to operate, too, so if they’re gonna double, it puts them in a tough pinch.”

If the Cougs regret anything from the game, it might have been their start, their third straight game coming out of the gate sluggish. WSU got down 18-6 to ASU, 10-4 to USC and 19-6 to UCLA. In all three cases, the Cougs displayed a real problem with ball security, giving away turnovers that led to easy baskets for the opponent.

It creates problems for WSU. When the Cougars can’t get stops, they give the opponent a chance to set its defense, and their half-court offense isn’t as effective as their offense in transition and semi-transition. Plus, when they’re losing turnovers, they have nearly no chance to stop breakaway buckets.

“I feel like we kind of got shocked by their aggressiveness, which can’t happen next game,” Wells said. “But it kind of just speaks to how together we are. We just kind of rallied, kept pushing, kept fighting. But that can’t keep happening. I mean, it happened last game, happened this game. Thursday, it better not happen.”