After spending most of the last 10 years in the Midwest or on the East Coast, I haven’t gotten many opportunities to watch basketball west of the Rockies. But a rare trip to California afforded me a chance to finally see a game at Pauley Pavilion, UCLA’s storied arena. This alone would have been cause for excitement, but the fact I got to watch the #5 Bruins (16-1) take on #4 Washington State (14-1) in one of the biggest Pac-10 games of the year gave it the potential to be a memorable experience. In fact, this was only the 6th time in Pac-10 history that two Top 5 teams met in league play.
Running a bit late, I rushed to the press area and didn’t have time to really take in the surroundings. One thing was easily noticeable though; the crowd was filled with 30% students and 70% gray-haired folks. The next obviously noticeable thing was that the press rows (at least the upper one’s I was corralled into) are pretty far from the court.
Despite being aired on FSN, the game had the feel of a nationally televised network game, and there was a good buzz in the crowd. Due to the magnitude of the game and the stiff defense these teams are known to play, the game got off to a sluggish start on the offensive end. The problem for Washington State was that the Bruins slowly got things going behind inside play from Love, a pair of threes from Shipp, and good energy from Russell Westbrook off the bench. The Cougars, on the other hand, didn’t wake up (not helped by two early Derrick Low fouls) until about 15 minutes into the game, after which they’d already gotten into a 26-8 hole.
The game probably could have been 26-0 at that point if not for Aaron Baynes, who gave the Cougars an inside presence to run the offense through, forcing double teams from help-side defenders.
In the last few minutes of the first half, WSU went on a little run highlighted by a Taylor Rochestie three at the buzzer. The basket cut the lead to a manageable score of 35-22 and the Cougars ended up shooting 8 of 21 from the half (not bad considering they started 2 of 13). Rochestie led the team with 7 points at the half, while UCLA was led by Love with 11 and Westbrook with 10.
Halftime was full of fanfare as new football coach and alum Rick Neuheisel was introduced. He gave a decent speech, highlighted by the line, “UCLA is Magic.” Well said, but the real magic trick will be convincing Pete Carroll to head to the NFL.
After halftime, Washington State’s offense still wasn’t clicking. The Cougars woes were summed up by a pair of air-balled free throws by Baynes. The 6-10 big man normally shoots an above average 77% from the line, but missed two in the second half by a full foot (perhaps distracted by a ridiculous blue-wigged man behind the hoop.)
On the flip side, UCLA’s Love hit a pair of threes, a rare occurrence considering he’d hit only 6 on the season. (Perhaps there was something in the air today as big men across the country, like Roy Hibbert’s game-winner, were hitting threes.)
Give credit to the Cougars for keeping the game within reach. A three by Derrick Low with 5:07 on the clock capped an 8-2 run that cut the score to 57-49. But following a timeout by Ben Howland, Darren Collison drove to the rim and hit a shot and the foul that pushed UCLA’s lead back to 11. Collison, hindered by a hip-pointer didn’t seem 100%, but he still was his usual solid self. Coach Howland agreed, "he did a great job orchestrating things today,"
Ultimately for the visitors, there was a little too much Kevin Love (a career-high 27 points and 14 rebounds), and not enough easy baskets. Love scored an and-one with 2:34 on the clock, pushing the lead to 66-53, and effectively ended the game. It was the best game of Love's young career. Howland joked, "I hope he keeps having more best games of his career."
However, a "stunning barrage" of seven WSU threes from Low (who finished with 24 points, all in the second half), Rochestie, and Devan Hamerling in the final 1:37 made the game look closer than it was at 81-74. UCLA's coach sighed with relief when the buzzer finally sounded, "I'm glad to still be alive right now."
At 4-0 in Pac-10 play, the Bruins are now alone in first while Tony Bennett’s squad falls back into the mix of one loss teams. This shouldn’t stop the momentum Washington State has built up, as last year they lost at Pauley but managed to run off 6 wins in their next 7 Pac-10 games. Howland called WSU "the best team we played all year." Not a bad compliment considering they've already played Michigan State and Texas.
UCLA will undoubtedly move back into 4th in the Polls, while Washington State will fall back into the 7 to 10 range.
Was my first trip to Pauley Pavilion a memorable one? The inside dominance of Kevin Love and WSU’s early offensive woes prevented the game itself from being noteworthy. But sunny weather, a storied arena, and a pumped up student-body made it one of the better college basketball games I’ve ever attended. Howland summed it up, "it was just a great environment for college basketball."