PULLMAN, Wash.--UCLA coach Ben Howland was so giddy, he kissed a reporter.
A week ago, UCLA's normally stoic coach openly wept after an emotional game, but he reached the opposite end of the emotional spectrum Saturday after UCLA made an improbable comeback and defeated Washington State, 58-54, in overtime in the regular-season finale Saturday at Beasley Coliseum.
The Bruins (22-9, 13-5 in Pac-10) fell behind by as many as 15 points in the first half and trailed, 32-19, at halftime. They started the second half with a 16-3 run to tie the score, then got a clutch 3-pointer by Tyler Honeycutt and a pair of free throws by Malcolm Lee in the final minute of regulation to send the game to overtime tied at 48-48.
Lee then made four of four free throws in the final seven seconds of overtime that sealed the victory, secured second place in the Pac-10 conference and made Howland so happy he couldn't contain himself.
"I’ve seen him excited, but I’ve never seen him that excited," UCLA center Joshua Smith said. "It was just the emotion of the game."
Yes, excited enough to kiss a reporter.
After the Bruins started this season 3-4, Howland did an interview with L.A. Daily News reporter Jon Gold, who asked if the Bruins could go on a roll and finish with 22 wins. Howland told Gold if that happened, he'd kiss him. Saturday, reminded of the conversation, he delivered.
"And I mean that kiss," Howland said after planting one on Gold's forehead. "I am so happy, you have no idea."
Five observations from the game:
1Once again, defense changed the game
Perhaps this is the main reason why Howland was so excited. Howland loves good defense and in the first half, UCLA wasn't playing it. But in the second half, the Bruins turned the tide by getting stop after stop, forcing Washington State (19-11, 9-9) into difficult shots and creating turnovers.
The Cougars did not make a field goal for nearly six minutes to start the second half and made only one of their first 12 shots after the break. UCLA took advantage, turning that spell into a 16-3 run that tied the score at 35-35.
UCLA forced three turnovers in the final 3:34 of regulation, then Tyler Honeycutt and Jerime Anderson came up with crucial steals late in the overtime period that led to Lee's game-sealing free throws.
"Every team needs defense," Smith said. "They just outhustled us in the first half. We came in the second half and said ‘Hey, we know we can score we just need to get stops.’ And that’s what we did."
Washington State shot 31.8 percent in the second half after shooting 48 percent in the first half. Part of the reason was that the Cougars confused UCLA by running a new offense.
"We didn’t go over anything they did offensively in our preparation," forward Reeves Nelson said. "That had a lot to do with it, just catching us off guard and then they executed it well."
2UCLA fixed its offense by going inside, then out
The Bruins struggles out of the gate were not limited to stopping Washington State's revamped offense. UCLA made only two of its first 12 shots on offense and shot 28 percent (seven of 25) in the first half.
The outside shooting was even worse, with the Bruins missing on all eight 3-point attempts before the break. Honeycutt, Lee and Anderson were scoreless in the first half and Lazeric Jones had only four points on 1-for-6 shooting. The Bruins four major outside threats combined to make only 1 of 15 first-half shots.
"We just wanted to get out of the first half and be able to come into the locker room and talk about it and know what we needed to do," Honeycutt said. "Our offense just wasn't there. A lot of possessions were coming down to the end of the shot clock. I didn't get many looks at the basket and when I did, the two I shot missed. Same thing for Malcolm, we both didn't score in the first half."
Going inside early in the second half was the cure. Smith, the center, scored the first points of the second half on a dunk and Nelson, the power forward, scored six points inside during the first seven minutes of the second half.
After that, Honeycutt made a 3-pointer that gave UCLA its first lead since making the first basket of the game and then he made another with 49 seconds to play that tied the score at 46-46.
Nelson then began the overtime period with two strong inside scores, including a powerful dunk.
"Coach said in the locker room at halftime that we wanted to get the ball inside and play inside out and we did a good job of executing it," said Nelson, who had a game-high 23 points on 10-for-13 shooting. "Once me and Josh get going down there it opens up things for our shooters and they started hitting outside shots."
Even Lee moved his game inside and found a way to get to the free-throw line to get the game to overtime and then win it at the end.
"Coach just told me to be aggressive and attack the rim," Lee said. "I knew I was either going to get fouled or make the layup or maybe both. I wanted the ball in that situation. I knew I could knock them down. I was just focused on making the first one and then getting into a rhythm. I didn’t even hear the crowd."
3Howland gave UCLA something to play for
No, not to see him kiss a reporter. None of the players were there for that. But Howland sensed his team lacked motivation after Arizona had clinched the regular-season Pac-10 title earlier in the day, so at halftime, he reminded the Bruins they were still on the bubble as far as making the NCAA tournament.
"I told them that ‘I want you to come out with passion and intensity like this game is going to either get us in or get us out of the NCAA tournament’ because I really believed that," Howland said. "In your heart, you just don’t know. I believe this one for sure got us in, and that was huge."
Some of the players acknowledged that they hadn't thought about the possibility of a loss Saturday knocking them out of the NCAA tournament.
"I’m not going to lie, I kind of thought we were already in the tournament," Smith said. "But nothing is certain. Unless you are a top team that’s been ranked the whole year. But with us, games like that we just have to get every win just to help us, help our resume and help us get a higher seed."
4Washington State put up an unexpected challenge under difficult circumstances
The Cougars were playing without Klay Thompson, the leading scorer in the Pac-10 who was suspended for the game after being cited for marijuana possession Thursday night.
They also were without point guard Reggie Moore, who sprained his ankle Thursday in a victory over USC.
Those absences seemed to raise the level of other Washington State players, however, and the Cougars played with a crowd-infused energy rather than simply falling flat without two of their top players.
"You have to give Washington State all the credit in the world the way they came out and completely dominated the first half with all the adversity of having Klay out of the game and then losing their star point guard, who I think is great, with an ankle injury," Howland said.
Thompson, averaging 21.4 points, addressed the crowd before the game and apologized for his transgression.
"As all ya'll know, I made a mistake and had bad judgement," said Thompson, who was not available to reporters. "I would do anything to be out here playing in front of you all, but unfortunately that's not the case and I want to apologize and say I'm truly sorry."
Thompson's apology impressed both Howland and the Bruins' players, who commended him for stepping up.
"That's huge for Klay to apologize to his fans and the people who come to see him play," said Anderson, who, like Thompson went to high school in Orange County. "I talked to him before the game, said, 'Hey, I know you'll make it through this. Just keep your head up.' He did what a man should do and that's step up and take the consequences."
5UCLA ended the regular season on a high note
Saturday's comeback victory was important not only for solidifying UCLA's spot in the NCAA tournament, but also to keep from entering the postseason on a two-game losing streak.
The Bruins will enter the Pac-10 tournament seeded No. 2 and will play Thursday at 6 p.m. at Staples Center. They will face the winner of No. 10 Arizona State and No. 7 Oregon.
"I really couldn’t be prouder of our players, just their character to be down and to be able to fight back and win a close game after losing a heartbreaker on the road in the last game," Howland said.
"It’s a battle. It’s hard to win and win on the road and win against this league night in and night out. You have to credit Arizona. Arizona did a fantastic job winning our conference this year. It’s got to eat at us a little bit that we had a chance to at least get a piece of it this week, but it is what it is."
The poor first half Saturday continued a season-long trend of UCLA being unable to play well for 40 minutes and ultimately that cost them the conference title. A Feb. 20 loss at California and Thursday's loss at Washington, the most haunting in the minds of the Bruins.
"It makes you look back and second guess losing at Cal and not executing up at Washington," Nelson said. But I think that if we can’t be first we’d rather be second. We’re going to do everything we can in the short amount of time we have and try and get as good as we can and try to win the Pac-10 tournament and see what we can do in the NCAAs."