The young guns of Washington State (14-13, 6-9) came of age against the No. 20 UCLA Bruins (20-7, 9-5) on the hardwood of Nell and John Wooden Court in Westwood, CA.
Finally a quality final for WSU, 82-81.
Caleb Forrest was feeling pretty darn good after the game, commenting on the importance of this win.
"This was the one team our seniors haven't beaten in the Pac-10. It feels great," Forrest said following the game.
So what happened Saturday afternoon?
In five words, the Cougs shot lights out.
All season long Coach Tony Bennett has called for an offense that has to take open shots when you get one. Much of the time that's been the case. But Saturday, there was a big difference in the result of Coach Bennett's urging.
Shots went down.
In the first half, the Cougs shot a white hot 68% from the floor. That's not a typo. WSU was 17-25 including 5-7 from behind the arc.
Let's step back for just a moment.
Both UCLA and WSU are known for their oppressive defense, needing a minimum number of points to earn a victory.
Sure WSU was knocking down just about everything in the opening twenty minutes, but the Bruins were shooting the ball well too.
UCLA converted and impressive 62% of their shot attempts against a Bennett Ball defense that typically holds opponents around 40% or less.
All the net music played out to a 42-42 halftime score.
Everything wasn't going Coach Bennett's way. All of his big men, Aron Baynes, DeAngelo Casto, Charlie Enquist and Forrest were in foul trouble. Baynes was in serious trouble after getting tagged with his third foul with 1:40 remaining in the first half.
If you aren't familiar with Enquist, that's understandable. Coach Bennett pressed him into play with the hope he could get to the locker room without any additional fouls on Baynes, Casto and Forrest.
"We're a young team loaded with freshmen, so Charlie had to get in there and play. We work everyone hard in practice so that they'll be ready for those situations," Bennett said.
Coach Ben Howland's team came out of the locker room with both fire and intensity.
Five minutes into the second half resulted in a five-point UCLA lead, 51-46. They made their move by switching up defense and remaining in the zone (shooting zone) when on offense.
The remaining fifteen minutes of play belonged to the men wearing the crimson road jerseys.
Coach Howland was not going to continue allowing freshman Klay Thompson to torch his defense the way he did in the first half. Thompson had 15 points to lead all scorers on 6-8 shooting, including 3-4 from behind the arc. His one miss from three-point land was a blocked shot.
Senior Taylor Rochestie was more than happy to step up and take over. Rochestie had plenty of help from the other seniors as well.
Where Baynes was hit with questionable fouls in the first half, the refs let him loose in the second half. The effort put in by Coach Bennett to work the officials paid off. Give Baynes a little freedom under the rim and he will more than hold his own. He was very comfortable throwing his size and strength at the Bruins.
Between Baynes and Forrest banging away and Rochestie filling it up from everywhere on the court, Washington State was up by eight with about two minutes to go.
UCLA isn't an overrated No. 20. They are a solid basketball club led by an outstanding coach.
The final two minutes of play had Cougar Nation on the edge of their seats just waiting to explode with jubilation. They were set up by a dagger thrown down by Rochestie from about 25' for three.
After Nikola Dragovic knocked down a trey from the range of Santa Monica, Coach Bennett called a time out to set up a play.
They play worked, but the shot didn't. Rochestie sliced through the Bruin defense to put up a runner that clanked off the rim. Not to be denied, he skied for the rebound and tipped it back in.
Rochestie's play was the kind that legends are made of.
Josh Shipp and UCLA weren't through yet. This was their house and they weren't about to let the visitors from Pullman leave with a win.
Shipp smoothly stroked a trey that closed the score to 80-78 in favor of the Cougs.
WSU did what they had to do. Get the ball into the hands of Rochestie. He was fouled and almost looked bored as he hit nothing but net on the final two points necessary to seal a win with just :09 showing on the time clock.
Dragovic had time to hoist a shot from downtown LA to pull UCLA within a single point.
With just two seconds left, Nic Koprivca put an unlikely end to the offensive explosion by both teams. Nic missed two free throws.
For this game, forget about it.
In a post-game interview, Coach Bennett had this to say about only the second win in Pauley Pavilion in the last 53 tries:
"We had trouble against the ball screens, but if you ask me if we could beat UCLA when they score 81, I would say we would not."
"You can't get too up or too down. You have to stay even-keeled."
"Sure, the euphoria is great after a win like this, but we have to come back home and prepare for the next game."
"I told our guys that I have a lot of fight in me despite our record and I was hoping they would have that same fight."
"I think Taylor played really well, also Aron Baynes gave us a physical presence and Klay, in the first half, really gave us a lift."
Showing class following a heart-breaking loss, Coach Howland graciously tipped his hat to WSU.
"Washington State is a great squad and you have to give all the credit to Tony Bennett for their win today."
An hour after the final buzzer, Coug fans were still waiting to register their support for this team victory. For Coach Bennett and the team, this moment has been a long time coming.
From the seasoned seniors to the freshman young guns, the moment was one to savor.
Tomorrow it will be back to work to prepare for a final home stand and senior night.
Cougar Nation was treated to a glimpse of things to come with this victory.
(Originally posted on examiner.com)