It did take a trip to Pullman for UCLA to get that road win. The Bruins have won 18 straight in Pullman, so it would have been a huge strike against this year's team, and a big media storyline, if they had lost this game.
Media storylines aside, there were a few points of interest in the game.
If you had to whittle down the game to one element you'd say that UCLA's zone defense made the difference in the win. UCLA went to a zone for the first time in about a month in the second half of this game, and it subsequently held WSU to no field goals for almost 6 minutes. That enabled the Bruins to go on a run and build a lead that it never relinquished.
The UCLA zone wasn't great, but it did effectively keep WSU's Brock Motum away from the basket and force the Cougars to take outside shots, which they mostly missed. Up until that point Motum was torching the Bruins, no matter which Bruin got the assignment of guarding him. He did most of his damage around the basket with clever post moves that confounded David Wear and Anthony Stover. But then UCLA went to zone, and it kept him from touching the ball, especially in the paint, and he was almost completely relegated to a screen-setter in WSU's zone offense. The Cougars had good looks with good ball movement against UCLA's relatively slow-reacting zone, but at least they were outside shots – albeit open ones – and the Cougars couldn't hit them.
Give Ben Howland credit for making the switch to the zone. It changed the game, took Motum out of his, and pretty much won it for the Bruins.
Josh Smith followed up his best performance of the season against Washington Thursday with another good one, finishing with 19 points and 5 rebounds against WSU. He didn't have the energy he showed against UDub, but he seemed to be in the same groove he established in that game. And perhaps even more significantly, Smith's defense, in the zone, was actually pretty good, being key in a few UCLA stops in the second half. He took a charge, and then on the next possession held his ground against a driver, which enabled some weakside defenders to help, and then he pulled down the defensive rebound. Up until that point, in UCLA's man defense, he was, as he's been for the entire season, a defensive liability, slow and uncertain in rotations, but he was far more comfortable – and effective – defensively in the zone.
David Wear and Lazeric Jones both contributed 15 points and, for the most part, played solidly. Wear was a good cog in UCLA's offense, getting some key baskets by smartly playing off Jerime Anderson on pick and rolls. He was, though, as I said, getting burned in UCLA's man defense against Motum. Jones made a few key plays at critical times.
Perhaps the guy who made the next biggest contribution was Tyler Lamb, who defensively had the performance of the day. He had at least 2 blocks and a steal coming over from the weakside in the zone during crunch time in the second half, getting UCLA a few stops when it desperately needed it.
Anthony Stover made some good contributions, as he does most of the time – impacting UCLA's defense and altering shots. He had a couple of excellent hustle plays, too, one in which he kept a rebound alive only for UCLA to reset and set up Wear for a three-pointer, which was a big turnaround in the game.
UCLA's offense wasn't as good as it usually has been of late, struggling some against Washington State's solid defense. It was interesting, though, since the Bruins seemed to struggle more against WSU's man D, which it played mostly in the first half, and was more effective against the Cougars's zone D, which they mostly played during UCLA's second-half surge. Perhaps Howland had the Bruins working on its zone offense quite a bit since Thursday.
The Bruins, though, have fell upon a fairly effective strategy: Execute the offense and get the ball inside to Smith as your first option, and on defense utilize the zone to force the opposing team to take most of its shots from the perimeter.
We'll see if Howland sticks with the strategy going forward. He could very well consider the zone a band-aid, like he has in the past. He might think he only needed to use it out of desperation in this game, with Travis Wear out and Smith in foul trouble.
Not that we'd wish for Wear to be out, or for Smith to be in foul trouble, but it does seem like Howland needs some desperate situations for him to actually arrive upon what seemingly is UCLA's most effective defense and use of its personnel.
Ah well. What can you do at this point? The Bruins finally get their first real road win, while they are 13-10 overall and 6-5 in the conference, which makes for a pretty disappoint season. They are only hoping that they get hot at the Staples Center in March for the Pac-12 Conference Tournament for any hope of salvaging the season. Perhaps Smith will still be in his State-of-Washington Groove and somehow UCLA will be forced to use its zone.