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UCLA Takes On a Team in Bloom

Times Staff Writer

Overconfidence.

That’s not a word typically heard in the Washington State locker room before a game against UCLA. And why would it be?

The Cougars have lost 24 of their last 25 games against the Bruins. The last time Washington State swept UCLA was in the 1937-38 season, the second year of the rivalry.

When the Cougars take the floor tonight at Pauley Pavilion, they will face a Bruin squad that is 13-2 overall, 3-1 in the Pacific 10 Conference and ranked 11th in the nation.

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Yet Washington State Coach Dick Bennett says he will have to guard against an emotional letdown. That’s because his team, coming off a 12-16 season (7-11 in conference) is off to a strong start. The Cougars are 9-3, 2-1 in conference.

And they are coming off a euphoric peak, having beaten rival Washington in Seattle on Saturday, 78-71, ending all sorts of losing streaks. The Cougars had lost 11 straight to the Huskies, who were ranked 10th coming into the game, had lost 34 in a row to a top-10 opponent and 57 straight to a top-10 opponent on the road.

“I think they are a little happy with themselves right now,” Bennett said. “My job is to make them unhappy, I guess. And believe me, I do plenty of that. Sports is full of teams that flop after a big win. We try to work against that, but we don’t always get it done.

“I told my players to act like they are not shocked by this even though they are. I told them to act like they had been here before and might be here again. To hold their heads high but to not look goofy. Sometimes I wonder if they’re even listening to me or I’m just talking to myself.”

Bennett was talking to the media about his team’s burgeoning self-esteem this week before it was learned UCLA small forward Josh Shipp had ended his season, having decided that the continuing pain from his September hip surgery was too bad to continue.

That decision and a long list of fellow Bruins who are either out or at less than full strength because of injuries figures to give Washington State even more confidence.

But the Cougars have a key injury of their own to worry about. Sophomore guard Derrick Low, who had started every game, broke his right foot in practice last week and is out at least six weeks.

Low is their leading scorer (10.5 points per game) and was also averaging 3.8 assists.

But last week against Washington, sophomore Josh Akognon filled Low’s scoring role with 27 points, triple his average. Akognon made nine of 16 shots, including six of 10 from three-point range, had 17 points in the second half and made a clinching three-pointer with just under 20 seconds remaining.

Providing yet another boost for the Cougars’ confidence.

TONIGHT

vs. Washington State, 7:30,

FSN West 2

Site -- Pauley Pavilion.

Radio -- 690.

Records -- UCLA 13-2 overall, 3-1 Pac-10; Washington State 9-3, 2-1.

Update -- Although UCLA Coach Ben Howland won’t reveal his starting lineup until tonight, it is assumed he will move Arron Afflalo to small forward in place of Josh Shipp and will insert freshman Darren Collison into the starting lineup beside Jordan Farmar in the backcourt. Afflalo experienced pain and soreness on his hip and backside after taking a hard fall Saturday at Arizona State, but medical tests have failed to show anything more serious. Senior centers Michael Fey (sprained ankle) and Ryan Hollins (strained groin) are doubtful for tonight.

Tickets -- (310) 825-2946


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