UCLA blows out Washington State to stay unbeaten in Pac-12

Ben Bolch
Washington State forward Andrej Jakimovski (23) takes a shot against UCLA guard Jaime Jaquez Jr., right, during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game Thursday, Jan. 14, 2021, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Ashley Landis)
Washington State forward Andrej Jakimovski takes a shot against UCLA guard Jaime Jaquez Jr., right, during the first half Thursday at Pauley Pavilion. (Ashley Landis / Associated Press)

Mick Cronin had envisioned this for a while now, an efficient UCLA offense being supercharged by some of his struggling shooters all making a high percentage of baskets in the same game.

The Bruins fully enjoyed that scenario Thursday against Washington State, one ball after another falling through the net.

Cody Riley continued to dominate overmatched defenders around the basket. Tyger Campbell and Johnny Juzang sustained their recent uptick in accuracy. Jake Kyman shook off his season-long slump to join in on the shot-making fun.

The result was a rare breather for UCLA in a start-to-finish 91-61 romp over the Cougars that gave the Bruins a fifth consecutive victory and maintained a historic climb for a Cronin team in offensive efficiency.

“Today the ball went in for us,” Cronin said, “and it made it awfully hard to cover us.”

UCLA (10-2 overall, 6-0 Pac-12 Conference) made 65% of its shots in the first half and 54% for the game, precision that was all the more impressive considering it came against a team that was holding its opponents to 35.5% before Thursday. It was often what came before the shot that mattered most, rapid ball movement turning a good shot into a great one.

“Great passing,” Cronin said, “leads to great shooting.”

There was plenty of both to go around. Nobody was better in either department than Campbell, the sophomore point guard who had six assists to go with only two turnovers while making seven of eight shots on the way to 16 points. Campbell also made both of his three-pointers after entering the game shooting only 24.1% from long range.

“As much as we’re willing passers on this team, we’re all still offensive threats and we all understand that,” said Campbell, who has made 14 of 18 shots over his last two games. “So a main thing is just knowing when to pass and knowing when to shoot, and we were very good at that today.”

Jaime Jaquez Jr. added 16 points and Juzang continued to be more selective with his shots, making seven of 14 on the way to a career-high 17 points. He sank three of six three-pointers and has posted career highs in points in back-to-back games after scoring 16 against Arizona last weekend.

“Just being present and enjoying the moment and kind of playing my game,” Juzang said of his success. “Doing what I know.”

In another encouraging development for the Bruins, who are off to their best start in conference play since winning their first seven games during the 1993-94 season, Kyman made two of three three-pointers on the way to a season-high 10 points after entering the game shooting 23.8% from beyond the arc. Cronin joked that he had fired himself after briefly telling Kyman to generate offense off shot-fakes rather than trusting his ability to shoot.

“I fired myself,” Cronin said, “and my new attitude is, don’t pass up shots.”

The Bruins were eager to let it fly from the opening tip. Campbell got things started with a floater and Riley followed with back-to-back jump shots, a jump hook and a spin move for a layup.

The game wasn’t even three minutes old and the Bruins had made their first five shots. Cronin said playing through Riley (12 points) early freed up the Bruins’ perimeter shooters for more open looks. UCLA made nine of 16 three-pointers (56.3%) for the game.

Senior guard Isaac Bonton scored 23 points to lead Washington State (9-3, 2-3), which was blown out despite shooting a respectable 46% in part because it was outrebounded by 15 and committed five more turnovers than the Bruins.

UCLA scored its most points in a half under Cronin while building a 54-38 halftime lead. The stat that best indicated the Bruins’ willingness to share the ball was their 20 field goals on 15 assists. Eight of the Bruins’ first nine assists came from different players who moved the ball as if they were competing to see who could throw the best pass.

It gave UCLA a glimpse of its potential after a display that nudged the team’s offensive efficiency to No. 10 nationally in the metrics of basketball analyst Ken Pomeroy, which would be a record for a Cronin team.

“Shots were dropping and we’re hitting each other and screaming for each other, finding each other,” Juzang said. “Man, it’s so much fun.”

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.