Trailing by three points with 26.6 seconds left in regulation Saturday at Beasley Coliseum, the Washington State men’s basketball team appeared to be returning from a timeout with a conservative approach as junior guard Isaac Bonton drove to the basket with a gaggle of UCLA defenders converging on him.
But rather than attempt the anticipated layup, Bonton passed the ball to a wide-open CJ Elleby, who hit a clutch 3-pointer to tie the game at 65-65. The Cougars went on to prevail 79-71 in overtime for their first Pac-12 Conference win under coach Kyle Smith and their first win against the Bruins since 2016.
“Coach has got some gems,” Bonton said. “He’s really got some stuff stashed in his head somewhere. He drew up a nice play for us. I just wanted to get eyes on the rim, get the focus on me trying to go to the basket and take it off CJ.”
Elleby’s late 3 helped to salvage what had been a lackluster performance on his part. The sophomore forward shot a mere 2-for-11 from the field up until that point, but found his form in time to make it count. He followed up with a steal and drive-in layup on one of the first plays of overtime to extend the Cougar lead to 69-65. Elleby ultimately went 4-for-13 from the field and 5-for-5 from the free-throw line for 15 points, and made a team-high four steals before fouling out for a second consecutive game.
It was Bonton who was named player of the game in the end after finishing with a team-high 17 points, including eight of Wazzu’s 14 in overtime. He also provided a team-best five assists and pulled down five rebounds.
“A lot of people have been saying I’m in a slump and I don’t really believe in a slump. I work hard every single day,” Bonton said. “My coaches really believe in me. It’s just a matter of time until the shots fall.”
Both teams started slow in a scoreless and turnover-filled opening two-and-a-half minutes of regulation. The Cougs (10-5, 1-1 Pac-12) mustered a brief surge to lead 9-2 before going cold for the final 15 minutes of the half.
The Cougs and Bruins each put their best DNA on court as DJ Rodman — son of NBA great Dennis Rodman — entered play for WSU with 12:24 to go in the first half, while 6-foot-9 UCLA forward Shareef O’Neal, who gets his name and his height from father Shaquille O’Neal, joined the fray a minute later. Neither got on the board in the game.
WSU shot a mere 5-of-24 from the field for 20.8 percent in the half, with an 11-of-14 showing at the foul line keeping the score relatively respectable. UCLA (8-7, 1-1) managed to hit 41.4 percent of its shots (12-for-29) and pulled away in the final five minutes to take a 33-24 lead into the locker room.
The Cougs’ terminally low field goal percentage reflected a continuation of their form from Thursday’s 65-56 loss to USC, in which they had finished at less than 28 percent. Something finally clicked in the second half, however; WSU would convert 20-of-35 field goals during the remainder of the game.
“At halftime we said, ‘We’ve just got to keep believing,’” said Smith, who came to the press conference damp with the Gatorade his players had splashed on him in the locker room. “’We’re competing hard.’ ... We just kept at it, and I’m really proud of Isaac. He just hung in there and made big-time shots when it mattered most.”
The pace quickened early in the second half, and the Cougs struggled to keep the score within single digits, trailing by 11 at 50-39 as late as 13:03 to go. Tony Miller sparked the Wazzu rally with strong play around the rim, providing nine points and three defensive rebounds in a five-minute stretch to help lift his team back to within a possession. All 11 of Miller’s points came in the second half, and he led the team in rebounds with six.
A Ryan Rapp jump shot brought the WSU fans to their feet at 53-49, and Noah Williams contributed three more points to the Cougar surge. Bonton converted a layup to put WSU up for the first time since midway through the first half at 54-53, then the teams exchanged the lead several more times within regulation.
Miller won a jump ball over UCLA’s Jalen Hill to start overtime, and Jeff Pollard capitalized with a drive-in field goal. Elleby and Bonton followed suit to give the Cougs a 71-65 advantage.
“I am disappointed in our defense in the second half today,” UCLA coach Mick Cronin said. “We probably played three halves with toughness over our two games in Washington and today we didn’t play with toughness in the second half. We sat down and got some stops and gave ourselves a chance to win at 65-62 and then we had another defensive breakdown which was just par for the course.”
The Bruins had one last gasp, fighting back to 73-71 behind an inside basket from Chris Smith — who scored a game-high 22 — and a 3 from Jake Kyman.
Fittingly, it was Bonton who slammed the door in WSU’s favor, making an improbable outside jump shot under duress to push the lead back to four with 1:18 remaining, then hitting two free throws in the closing seconds for the final margin.
The Cougar men return to Pac-12 play at 7:30 p.m. Thursday at California.
“Hopefully there’s more of those coming,” Kyle Smith said of the win. “These guys deserve it. They’re a good group. They’re fun to coach — they’re going to try hard and give it their best effort.”
UCLA (8-7, 1-1)
Olesinski 1-3 2-2 5, Riley 1-3 2-4 4, Smith 8-14 5-8 22, Ali 5-9 0-0 11, Singleton 0-3 0-0 0, Jaquez Jr. 1-6 3-3 5, Campbell 0-3 0-0 0, Hill 3-5 0-2 6, Bernard 4-10 1-2 10, Kyman 3-6 0-0 8, O’Neal 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 26-62 13-21 71.
WASHINGTON ST. (10-5, 1-1)
Bonton 7-14 3-4 17, Robinson 1-4 0-0 3, Elleby 4-13 5-5 15, Kunc 2-4 6-9 12, Miller 4-5 3-4 11, Rodman 0-1 0-0 0, Williams 2-7 3-7 8, Pollard 3-7 3-3 9, Shead 0-2 0-0 0, Rapp 2-2 0-0 4. Totals 25-59 23-32 79.
Halftime — UCLA, 33-24. 3-point goals — UCLA 6-21 (Jaquez Jr. 0-2, Smith 1-1, Campbell 0-1, Ali 1-2, Bernard 1-5, Kyman 2-5, Singleton 0-2, Olesinski 1-3), Washington St. 6-20 (Kunc 2-4, Pollard 0-1, Robinson 1-3, Elleby 2-4, Bonton 0-4, Williams 1-2, Rodman 0-1, Shead 0-1). Fouled out — Elleby, Bernard. Rebounds — UCLA 43 (Smith, Bernard 7), Washington St. 37 (Miller 6). Assists — UCLA 9 (Campbell, Ali 2), Washington St. 11 (Bonton 5). Total fouls — UCLA 27, Washington St. 19. A — 2,825.