PULLMAN, Wash. (AP)—UCLA’s Nikola Dragovic put on a show in the first half, hitting six 3-pointers to give the Bruins a big lead.
The second half was all Washington State, as the Cougars shot 63 percent and tied the game twice in the closing minutes.
In the end, UCLA’s defense and some big plays by Nick Collison lifted the 13th-ranked Bruins to a 61-59 win Thursday night that kept them atop the Pac-10 standings.
“Every time we play Washington State it comes down to tough possessions in the stretch,” Bruins’ coach Ben Howland said after his team won its 16th consecutive game in Pullman.
UCLA (15-3, 5-1 Pac-10) looked to be cruising with a 53-42 lead late. But the Cougars (11-7, 3-3) scored 11 straight points, the final six by Caleb Forrest, to tie it at 53 with 5:08 left.
Collison, who scored six of his eight points in the closing minutes, made a pair of free throws for a 55-53 UCLA lead. Aron Baynes replied with two for WSU to tie it again.
Then Collison sank consecutive short baskets for a 59-55 UCLA lead with 2:39 left. Baynes’ layup cut the UCLA lead to two, but Alfred Aboya made two free throws for a 61-57 UCLA lead.
Marcus Capers drove for a basket to cut UCLA’s lead to 61-59 with less than a minute left.
Dragovic missed a long jumper and the Cougars rebounded with 13 seconds left. Forrest, who scored a career-high 19, got trapped about 13 feet out and couldn’t pass, so Washington State called a timeout with 4.6 seconds left to avoid a turnover.
Taylor Rochestie’s first inbounds pass was batted out by Collison. Capers caught the second one far past the 3-point line, and his shot missed. UCLA got the rebound to end the game.
Washington State coach Tony Bennett was incensed that his team trailed 36-23 at halftime, after allowing UCLA to make 56 percent of its shots.
“You can’t let a team like UCLA get that kind of lead and expect to win,” Bennett said. “I wish this team could take some tough pills. When you play a team like UCLA, you need to play tough from beginning to end.”
The Cougars held UCLA to 40 percent shooting in the second half, and outscored the Bruins 36-25.
“We can be proud of the second half,” Rochestie said. “There were some lapses, but we rallied on a good defensive team.”
Rochestie, who finished with nine points and six assists, said he was looking for Baynes inside for WSU’s last shot. But Baynes was covered and Capers, a freshman, was open.
“We got a shot off,” Rochestie said. “It just didn’t go in.”
Baynes finished with 15 points and 10 rebounds. Forrest made eight of nine shots.
The Cougars are the nation’s top defensive team, allowing only 52 points per game. The Bruins are among the leaders, allowing only 58. So this one went according to form.
Dragovic, who came in averaging 7.0 points and shooting 29 percent from 3-point range, opened the game with a 3-pointer and made 6-of-7 3-pointers in the first half.
UCLA led 17-15 with seven minutes left in the first. But Dragovic hit four long 3s over the next five minutes to power the Bruins to a 36-23 lead at halftime. Dragovich’s 18 first half points surpassed his career-high game of 15 set against Arizona on Jan. 15.
“I haven’t had a run like that since I’ve been here,” the junior from Serbia said. “In Europe I had a couple of them.”
Dragovic said he took advantage of screens to get open shots.
The Cougars adjusted in the second half, holding him to one basket in five shots.
“Nik got tired,” Howland said
James Keefe went in to spell him and added seven points and five rebounds.
“The key was getting off to that big lead,” Howland said. “You know they are going to make a run.”
“No one is going to take it easy on the Bruins,” Howland added.
The loss snapped a three-game winning streak for Washington State, which lost its ninth straight to UCLA and fell to 94-13 in the series. The Cougars have not won at home since 1993. Yet despite the lopsided record, 10 of the past 11 meetings between the teams have been decided by fewer than nine points, six of those by three or less
Washington State fell to 0-4 against ranked opponents this year.