His team playing its best basketball of the season, UCLA coach Mick Cronin voiced one concern as the Bruins headed into the heart of their Pac-12 schedule.
Could they post a comeback victory, something they had not needed to do while rolling off one win after another over the previous five weeks?
“At some point,” Cronin said earlier in the week, “we’re going to have to come back.”
That moment came Friday night.
Struggling to deal with the physical interior presence of Washington State’s Mouhamed Gueye, the No. 11 Bruins fell into a 12-point hole at Beasley Coliseum before pulling out a 67-66 victory.
UCLA cycled through three big men while trying to counter the 6-foot-11 Gueye, to no avail. Gueye rose for a three-pointer. He drove the baseline for a dunk. He soared for a putback.
Meanwhile, the Bruins’ offense sputtered on a court where they had dropped their last two games. At one point in the first half, they missed nine consecutive shots. Senior forward Jaime Jaquez Jr. couldn’t help because he was stuck on the bench with two fouls after missing all five of his first-half shots.
UCLA would have been getting blown out had it not made 13 of 14 free throws in the first half, propping up its bid to extend an eight-game winning streak.
UCLA junior guard Jaylen Clark helped his team pull even in the opening minutes of the second half after he came up with a steal that led to a David Singleton three-pointer.
A few minutes later, Jaquez finally made a basket on a jumper and it looked like the Bruins might be on their way, but Washington State’s D.J. Rodman countered with an old-fashioned three-point play and a three-pointer.
When he followed those plays with two free throws, the Cougars were back up by eight.
The Bruins played without freshman guard Amari Bailey, who was held out because of discomfort in his left foot. Singleton, usually the team’s sixth man, replaced Bailey in the starting lineup and helped spark the Bruins’ comeback late in the first half when he took a charge on Gueye.
By halftime, Gueye had already notched a double-double with 11 points and 10 rebounds while mostly having his way against a team that Cronin said had shown “exponential improvements” defensively over the last few weeks.
That defense tightened over the final minutes of the first half, helping UCLA close with a 9-2 run to make its halftime deficit a manageable 37-32.
The start had been far more amenable for the Bruins. They rolled off the game’s first five points, including two free throws after Washington State coach Kyle Smith had been called for a technical foul.
But Gueye quickly commenced his one-man show and the Cougars got a boost from several players off the bench. Jabe Mullins sank a three-pointer to push Washington State’s lead to 26-16, leaving the Bruins to work to complete their coach’s quest for a rally.
Bolch reported from El Paso, Texas.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.