Collison keeps Bruins in control


This time, Darren Collison wasn’t going to let it happen.

This time, as his team blew yet another lead down the stretch, the UCLA point guard told himself that he needed to get tough.

Tough as in waving his teammates out of the paint, diving into the thick of the defense. Tough as in drawing fouls and making his free throws, making clutch baskets in the final minutes.

This time, because of his late-game grit, the 13th-ranked Bruins avoided another meltdown, fighting their way to a 61-59 victory over Washington State on Thursday night.


Collison tried not to make a big deal about it, saying, “We had to force the issue a little bit.”

But this victory came just five days after UCLA squandered an 11-point lead against Arizona State, the offense going stagnant, scoring only four points in the final 13-plus minutes of regulation and overtime.

The Bruins needed a victory in shivery Pullman to bounce back from their disappointment. They needed some momentum heading into Saturday’s game at Washington, where they have not won since 2004.

Washington State Coach Tony Bennett knew to give Collison credit.

“He’s special late in the game,” Bennett said. “One of the best there is.”

The win improved UCLA’s record to 15-3, 5-1 in Pacific 10 Conference play. And for most of the night, the Bruins looked like they might win easily.

Facing a Washington State team that plays the stingiest defense in the nation -- surrendering 52.4 points a game -- they found a simple way to score. They gave the ball to forward Nikola Dragovic.

Camped at the three-point line, the junior from Belgrade, Serbia, made six of seven from long range, including four in a row, to stake his team to a 36-23 halftime lead.


The Cougars (11-7, 3-3) later adjusted by switching defenders onto Dragovic -- who finished with a career-high 20 points -- but UCLA’s advantage held up through most of the second half with forward James Keefe and swingman Michael Rolls scoring from outside.

Then the Bruins hit the dreaded mark: up by 11 with eight minutes to go.

At the exact same point against Arizona State last week, they stopped attacking the zone defense. This time, Washington State deserved much of the credit.

The Cougars began sinking shot after shot, sparked by forward Caleb Forrest and center Aron Baynes, who led their team with 19 and 15 points respectively.

“We told them, ‘If you think you’re going to get this back quickly . . . you’re going to have to fight like crazy,’ ” Bennett said. “I was proud of them from that standpoint.”

Forrest’s three-pointer with about five minutes remaining tied the score at 53-53. That’s when Collison took control.

Having scored only two points all night, he immediately drove the lane, drew a foul and made two free throws. Then he forced his way inside for a layup. Then he darted into the paint and made a short jumper. Just that quickly, UCLA was back in command.


“Late in the game we couldn’t hit a shot,” said center Alfred Aboya, whose clutch free throws provided the Bruins’ final two points. “That’s just great leadership he was demonstrating.”

Still, Washington State had a chance at the end, grabbing a rebound with 20 seconds remaining, needing a basket to send the game into overtime.

The Bruins played tough defense, forcing the Cougars to call time out with just under five seconds remaining, which set the stage for a crucial inbounds play.

UCLA expected Washington State to lob a pass to Baynes or set a screen for guard Taylor Rochestie, the inbounder. Coach Ben Howland instructed his players “to pressure the ball and not get beat by those two plays.”

They did not, forcing a pass outside to guard Marcus Capers, whose three-point attempt thudded off the backboard as the clock ticked down.

And where did the ball end up?

In Collison’s hands.