No denying Cougs' legitimacy at UCLA

ANY DOUBT ABOUT the legitimacy of Washington State's best basketball start in 15 seasons was erased Saturday at historic Pauley Pavilion, where the Cougars went toe-to-toe for a full, nailbiting 40 minutes with the nation's No. 1-ranked team. In the end, though, the outcome was as it always is for the crimson when they travel to Westwood.

Another loss -- their 90th in 104 lifetime games against UCLA.

Another heartbreaker -- in the last three years, five of the Cougs' losses to UCLA have been decided by three points or less.

And another trend going the wrong way -- this was 25th time in WSU history the Cougs have lost to a No. 1-ranked team (with nary a win in between).

"I thought we had them," said Cougar guard Derrick Low.

"We're a little numb right now," said head coach Tony Bennett.

The quote of the night belonged to UCLA head man Ben Howland: "The crowd was rooting us back into this game. If this game was in Pullman, we'd lose."

For UCLA, now 12-0 on the season, it wasn't quite as dramatic as their March Madness victory over Gonzaga last season, but it was a donnybrook that had the vocal crowd of 11,102 on the edge of their collective seats right to the end, when Cougar freshman Nikola Koprivica's three-point try to tie it bounced off.

UCLA 55, WSU 52.

The Cougars were horrendous from 3-point range (3 of 12), poor from the foul line (59 percent) and schooled on the glass (40-28). But they played tenacious defense and scored one clutch basket in the paint after another.

There was Kyle Weaver, grabbing rebounds and loose balls, dishing off assists and scoring points.

There was Robbie Cowgill blocking shots and moving on defense like a point guard.

There was Low, with one spectacular scoring drive through traffic after another.

How tough were the Cougars, who drop to 11-2 with hot-handed USC on tap Saturday?

They led the game for 22 straight minutes. They were up by 10 at one point in the first half and nine at one point in the second. They were tied three times.

They played 13 minutes before committing their first turnover. They blocked seven first-half shots. They held Darren Collison scoreless for the first 24 minutes. Their bench outscored UCLA's 13-3. They held the Bruins to 33 percent shooting accuracy.

Even in the face of a 21-8 second-half UCLA run -- a run fueled by consecutive WSU possessions that ended with two blocked shots, a steal, a traveling call and a badly off-target three-point try -- the Cougars didn't wilt.

With 12 national championship banners hanging above their heads and the greatest coach in the sport's history, John Wooden, watching from his usual seat, Tony Bennett's spirited bunch kept fighting.

Forget Rocky Balboa. These are the Washington State Cougars.

Down 53-47 with 3 minutes on the clock, Koprivica -- making the fifth start of his career -- drilled a three-pointer to narrow the score to 53-50. UCLA then was whistled for a held ball and the Cougars' Ivory Clark subsequently slammed one home, making it 53-52. Collison then narrowly missed a layup that Clark rebounded. The Cougs then called timeout.

Twenty-five seconds left, down by one against the top-ranked team in the nation.

WSU worked the ball around and then Low, who led the Cougars with 14 points, inexplicably fired up an airball from three-point range when there was plenty of time on the clock. The Cougs quickly fouled and after two free throws by UCLA, the chance at history was still within reach. As the clock wound down to zero, Koprivica got a good look at the basket, squared up nicely and let fly with the potential game-tying three-pointer.

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