Lots to mull in wake of Cougar loss to Bruins

UCLA COACH BEN HOWLAND is a class act. In the cauldron of Cougar Mania that surrounded Friel Court on Thursday, his Bruins overcame a halftime deficit and a late Cougar run to clinch a second-straight Pac-10 title. And yet, some of the first words out of his mouth afterward were in praise of the Cougs. And not just idle praise – but the kind not heard on the Palouse since before Pearl Harbor.

"If you told me these guys (the Cougars) would end up in the Final Four, I wouldn't be one bit surprised," he told the Los Angeles Times.

For ye unwashed, the last time WSU sniffed a Final Four was 1941, when the Cougs advanced to the championship game and lost by five to Wisconsin.

Ol' Ben may simply have been waxing generously in the wake of the big win, 53-45. But the fact was, this contest between the No. 2 and No. 13-ranked teams in the land was intense.

Tony Bennett said it had a "tournament quality" feel about it.

Indeed, when Daven Harmeling drained a three to put the Cougs up 23-22 just before halftime, there was enough electricity in the air to power a small third-world country.

CRIMSON COMMENTARY

The glow was short-lived, however, as the Bruins came out of the locker room on fire, while the Cougs couldn't buy a proverbial bucket. UCLA drilled 11 of the first 14 shots they took after halftime. The Cougs, despite getting good looks, started out 0 for 6.

For the entire second half, WSU shot 28.6 percent, connecting on 8 of 28 field goal attempts. For the game, Wazzu shot 37 percent.

And therein lies the reason to question Howland's judgment about WSU — now 23-6 -- having what it takes to be a Final Four team.

The Cougars aren't playing great basketball right now. They haven't for a couple of weeks. There have been uncharacteristic turnovers and defensive lapses.

But above all, there's the shooting. Or lack there of. The Cougs just aren't making baskets when they need them most.

And, yes, I saw Mac Hopson beat Oregon State last week with a sweet jumper in the last 35 seconds. But that doesn't count, because the Beavers – the second-worst team in the Pac-10 – made the Cougs look like pretenders for about 32 minutes out of 40.

When this team absolutely needs a basket, who do you give the ball to?

That's the trouble.

No one name comes immediately to mind.

Derrick Low used to come to mind.

But not anymore. The poor guy is colder than Arctic ice.

In 27 minutes against the Bruins, he scored two points. He made 1 of 8 shots from the field. He was 0-for-4 from three-point range, with one of those shots -- if it falls -- pulling the Cougs within one in the final one-minute-plus.

This was the second game in the last six where Low scored only two and the third time in that span he failed to reach double-digits (he had six in the frustrating loss to Oregon last week).

Low hasn't put up more than 13 points in a game since late January.

Coach Bennett's protestations earlier this week that his leading scorer isn't in a slump, just getting a lot of attention from the other teams, now rings hollow.

And not just to me. From the sounds of his post-game quotes, Bennett too.

"Derrick didn't play well tonight and we need him to come up big. They guarded him hard but he's got to continue to find ways to get us some buckets," Bennett said.

"The few looks we got him, he wasn't on and we needed him to bang a few shots just to give us some breathing room. We needed a few of those outside shots to go in and when that's not going it's tough for us."

The absence of clutch shooting, in turn, puts more demand on the defense. So when those breakdowns eventually happen, Still, there is good news. In fact, lots of it.

For one, with USC losing to Washington on Thursday, the worst the Cougars can do is tie for second in the Pac-10 if they lose to the Trojans on Saturday.

Second, the Cougs couldn't get any shots to fall – against one of the best team in the country and one of the best defenses in the West – and they still were within two possessions of the lead or a tie with one minute remaining.

And third, there's time to get things straightened out. USC is here Saturday and then the Pac-10 tournament starts next week. Bottom line, there's a significant amount of ball to be played before March Madness arrives.

"We're going to have to play a lot better to beat a team like that," Bennett said. "If our guys learn from it, I'd like to try it again, but nothing's easy against a team like that."

NOTABLE NOTES:

• This was UCLA's sixth straight win against WSU and 28th in the last 30.

• WSU hoisted a banner before the game marking the 90th anniversary of its 1917 National Championship.

• The Cougars tipoff against USC at 4 pm Saturday. The game will be televised by FoxSports.

• A Fraudian program slip by the Associated Press? In its recap of the Cougar-Bruins contest, the AP wrote: "Before the game, WSU presented retired basketball coach Dick Bennett with an honorary alumnus award for the three years he spent rebuilding the problem before turning it over to his son Tony this year." The italics in that sentence were inserted by CF.C.

NOTABLE QUOTES:

• Tony Bennett on the Cougar defense against UCLA: "I just was disappointed in some of our breakdowns defensively. It felt like we gave them a few easier shots than normal. Too many point blank baskets and you're not going to beat a team like UCLA."

• Derrick Low on the second half: "We just had some breakdowns defensively. UCLA is the kind of team that is going to execute off your mistakes and your breakdowns. They are big and physical. But this is Pac-10 and that's how its going to be. We're coming into the Pac-10 tournament soon and we're going to have to try to play as physical as them if we want to do something."

Robbie Cowgill on the tough start to the second half: "We got three or four good looks is a row, we just couldn't put them down. We were getting good shots and we could have stayed with them there. What we want to do coming out of half is get scores and stops and pretty much the opposite happened."

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