Cougars' second-half fade feels too familiar

THIS WAS A GAME that conference-championship caliber teams win. Washington State displayed that potential for 20 minutes, but faded during the second half as in losing their Pac-10 opener, 80-71, Wednesday night against UCLA at Pauley Pavilion.

It was a script that felt all too familiar for the Cougars. Last season, WSU often looked like an NCAA Tournament team for a half, while resembling a Big Sky squad during the other.

And UCLA forward Reeves Nelson made the Cougars' post defenders look about as effective as those from low-majors. It appeared that WSU might get a break when both Nelson and 6-foot-10 Kentwood High School product Josh Smith were sidelined with four fouls with nine minutes left.

But Bruins coach Ben Howland gambled and reinserted both Nelson and Smith with 7:25 remaining. That enabled Nelson, who scored 21 points and had 11 rebounds, to remind Cougars fans why he is their biggest nemesis in the post since the Lopez twins left Stanford for the NBA draft after the 2007-08 season. In two seasons with the Cardinal, the twins went 4-1 against WSU. Nelson now is 3-0.

When Nelson re-entered the game, UCLA (9-4 overall, 1-0 Pac-10) led by just four points. But after a pair of Smith free throws and a layup by Nelson, it never was close again.

"The second half, especially the beginning, we didn't play with a lot of energy," WSU coach Ken Bone said during a postgame radio interview. "It seemed like time and again, Reeves Nelson came up with a rebound."

Despite Nelson's presence, this was a contest the Cougars needed to win. With losses against Virginia Commonwealth and Montana, the Bruins hardly resemble the perennial Final Four contender they were earlier in Howland's tenure.

WSU (10-3, 0-1), which now is 11-22 in Pac-10 openers, appeared in control when it needed less than four minutes in the first half to go on a 15-0 run. That helped the Cougars take a 37-29 lead into halftime.

It was a game they should have closed out. Instead, WSU looked too much like last season's version that finished 6-12 in Pac-10 play. The Cougars' defense was lax — they allowed UCLA to shoot 50 percent from the field — as they lost after leading at halftime for the first time this season. The Bruins took a 44-43 lead with about 14:30 left and never trailed again.

"We started off the game in zone and they scored on the first three possessions," Bone said. "We just felt we could get through the screens better playing man."

HIS TEAM DID not, and after displaying a dynamic offense for most of the nonconference schedule, WSU also had to count on junior wing Klay Thompson to produce too much. Thompson, who moved into 11th on the program's career-scoring list with a game-high 26 points, shot just 6 of 17 from the field. With the exception of junior guard Faisal Aden, who had 19 points on 9-of-13 shooting, Thompson had little help. It was the fifth consecutive game Thompson has scored at least 20 points.

"He did a good job of manufacturing some points," Bone said. "You've got a team like UCLA — the last thing they want him to do is come home and show them up."

It was too similar to Saturday's loss against Butler in the championship game of the Diamond Head Classic when Thompson scored 31 points but none of his teammates reached double figures as the Cougars lost 84-68.

Bone dismissed the notion that WSU could experience a similar malaise as last season when it lost 10 of its last 12 games.

"There's some things against us right now," he said. "We've been on the road for 9 or 10 days and potentially things are catching up."

But with another game at 3 p.m. Friday at USC, the Cougars had better find a way to refresh. After all, among WSU's previous NCAA Tournament teams, only the 1993-94 squad started worse than 0-1 in Pac-10 play. That team lost at both California and Stanford and then suffered an 81-79 setback against UCLA at Friel Court. But a 10-8 conference mark was good enough to qualify for the NCAA Tournament that year in a deep Pac-10. There are no such guarantees this season.

Avoiding an 0-2 start will not be easy as the Trojans took conference favorite Washington into overtime before losing 73-67. But unlike Pauley Pavilion, where the Cougars have won just twice in program history, they have won five of their last seven games at USC.

"USC is very good, but we're capable of winning," Bone said. "We need to get it done."

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