Mick Cronin made one point above all others in the huddle as UCLA set its defense for the stop it needed in the final seconds to beat Washington State.
Don’t help off the corner three-point line. If the Cougars get a layup, that’s fine, just inbound the ball and make free throws. Whatever you do, don’t give up an open shot from long range that could tie the score.
That’s exactly what happened Saturday afternoon at Beasley Coliseum.
Bruins guard Jules Bernard started the play defending Washington’s C.J. Elleby but got sucked in toward the basket after Cougars guard Isaac Bonton drove past Prince Ali. Bonton flung the ball to an open Elleby in the corner and he rose for the three-pointer that tied the score with 20 seconds left in regulation, completing the most egregious of UCLA’s defensive breakdowns during an eventual 79-71 loss in overtime.
“We had it in our hands and we let it go,” Bernard said, “so it’s definitely tough to take in.”
The setback was especially deflating given that it came only two days after the Bruins’ best victory of the season and deprived them of a chance to sweep the Washington schools on the road for the first time in three years.
It also further illustrated the zigzagging fortunes of a young team struggling to find its way under a new coach. Old habits re-emerged on the Bruins’ final defensive play of regulation.
“What happens, kids go back to their natural reaction, which is help,” Cronin said, “even though the whole timeout was ‘Don’t help.’ ”
The Bruins (8-7 overall, 1-1 Pac-12 Conference) had another chance to win after Elleby’s three-pointer tied the score at 65-65. Cronin called a timeout with 14 seconds left and set up an isolation play for guard Chris Smith, who was well on his way to a career-high 22 points. Cronin wanted Smith to attack his defender with 10 seconds left so that UCLA could have a chance for a rebound if he missed.
Those plans also went awry. The Cougars trapped Smith with 2.9 seconds left and poked the ball away, forcing UCLA’s Jake Kyman to attempt a halfcourt heave that was well off the mark.
“I tried to go left,” Smith said, “and they left one of my teammates to double me and tipped the ball out.”
It was all Cougars early in the overtime as forward Jeff Pollard made a jump hook, Elleby stole a pass from Smith and went in for a layup and Bonton hit a turnaround jumper to build a 71-65 advantage.
The Bruins eventually made it 73-71 on Kyman’s three-pointer, but Bonton made a tough jumper over Bernard and Noah Williams made three free throws to extend the cushion.
What disappointed Cronin most was the way his defense sagged after holding Washington State (10-5, 1-1) to 20.8% shooting while taking a 33-24 halftime lead. The Cougars had no trouble in the second half, making 15 of 27 shots (55.6%).
“We played with no toughness in the second half,” Cronin said.
The Bruins also didn’t play with much savvy. When Washington State entered the bonus with 12 minutes left, Cronin told his players not to commit needless fouls. But Bernard picked up one for going over the back at the free-throw line, Smith picked up another one on a reach-in at halfcourt and Kyman picked up one more for bumping a player in the backcourt.