• WSU 82, UCLA 81
LOS ANGELES – Ben Howland and Taylor Rochestie share the same hometown.
But the connection did nothing for Rochestie when he sought a college basketball scholarship.
In other words, Howland shared the sentiment of every other Pacific-10 Conference coach: Rochestie, a skinny point guard from Santa Barbara, Calif., wasn’t good enough.
Five years later, count Howland among the many Pac-10 coaches – past and present – who have recognized their error.
Rochestie drove that point home in Howland’s face Saturday afternoon when he scored a career-high 33 points in a brilliant performance that sparked Washington State to an 82-81 victory over 20th-ranked UCLA.
“I have a lot of respect for him,” Howland said. “He’s a great competitor. He willed them today, particularly in the second half.”
Rochestie, who spent his freshman season at Tulane before transferring to Washington State after Hurricane Katrina, scored 21 points after halftime, including 14 of WSU’s last 15 points.
A thrilling, surprisingly wide-open contest was not decided until Klay Thompson blocked Josh Shipp’s desperation shot from midcourt just before the final horn.
The victory was just the second for WSU in 52 trips to UCLA.
Pauley Pavilion was the only Pac-10 arena where Rochestie and three other WSU seniors had yet to taste victory, and UCLA was the only team the seniors had never beaten.
“To finally get over the hump against a team like this in an arena like this, it’s unbelievable,” Rochestie said.
“You have to give them credit,” Howland said. “They beat us fair and square.”
That they did, thanks largely to a stunning offensive performance. Victory almost escaped the Cougars in a sea of turnovers and other mistakes late in the game, but Rochestie made three big shots to hold the Bruins at bay before he sank six free throws in a row in the final 42.3 seconds.
“He’s a great player,” Howland said.
Rochestie and others struggled against UCLA’s traps and full-court press in the late going. However, Rochestie hit a pair of crucial 3-pointers and soared high to bat in his own miss from about 6 feet out – he said he’d never made a shot like that – and Rochestie did the rest from the line.
Thompson nailed his first five shots and scored all 15 of his points in the first half, but UCLA (20-7 overall, 9-5 Pac-10) rallied to forge a 42-42 tie at the break.
“That’s usually our final score,” WSU senior forward Caleb Forrest joked.
The points for and against were season highs in a first half for the Cougars. Their only higher totals for a half came in the second half at Oregon, when the Cougars outscored the Ducks, 50-45. WSU’s final total and 58.8 percent shooting from the field also were season bests.
Howland and his players bemoaned their listless play at the start and their poor defense all game. However, Howland joined his players in praising the Cougars, and raving about Rochestie in particular.
“He’s a kid that has great confidence,” WSU coach Tony Bennett said. “He’s a fierce competitor.”
“He’s a tremendous player, a tremendous scorer and a tremendous passer,” Forrest said. “He’s as good a point guard as you can get.”
The Cougars (14-13, 6-9), one of the lowest-scoring teams in NCAA Division I, left the crowd of 10,392 mumbling when they buried 11 of their first 13 shots to take a 27-19 lead. WSU wound up hitting 17 of 25 shots (68 percent) in the first half, but the Bruins outscored Washington State, 14-3, at the free-throw line in the half – the Cougars’ big men got into early foul trouble – and shot 62 percent in the first half and 53 percent for the game.
“Defensively, we’ve played better,” Forrest said. “But as far as playing hard and an overall game, this was our best game.”
The Cougars had lost nine in a row to the Bruins since winning at UCLA for the first time in 2004. That was under Dick Bennett, Tony’s father, who was on hand to watch his son make Howland the first coach to lose twice to the Cougars at 44-year-old Pauley Pavilion.
Four players scored in double figures for each team. Nikola Dragovic led UCLA with a career-high 23 points – his previous best was 20 at WSU last month – and Darren Collison added 20.
Dragovic buried a 3-pointer with 3.3 seconds to go. Those were the final points when WSU’s Nikola Koprivica missed two free throws with 2.1 seconds remaining.
The Cougars close out conference play with home games Thursday against Arizona and Saturday against No. 14 Arizona State, followed by a March 7 trip to Washington.