PULLMAN — The high-variance nature of Isaac Bonton’s game means the Washington State point guard is susceptible to the occasional off night. It also means Bonton doesn’t often have two in a row.
After a single-digit performance in Saturday’s loss at Oregon State, Bonton responded with a 26-point outburst against UCLA, mixing step-back 3-pointers with circus layups and clutch free throws to help guide the WSU men past the Bruins 81-73 on Thursday night at Beasley Coliseum.
The victory comes 28 days after the Bruins overwhelmed the Cougars in Los Angeles, winning 91-61 on a night that saw UCLA shoot better than 50% from the field and three-point line. Bonton was productive in that game, too, scoring 22 points, but his teammates made sure his efforts on Thursday weren’t in vain.
Jaz Kunc, who has played in 75 games for WSU over the past three seasons, reached double figures for only the ninth time in his career, scoring 13 points to go with eight rebounds. DJ Rodman scored 11 points and made three 3-pointers in his seventh career start, and fellow sophomore Ryan Rapp added five points with eight rebounds and eight assists in the third start of his career.
“I think rather than the Oregon State (loss), we were focusing on how we got 30-pieced last time (against UCLA) and we just wanted to show that were tough and show we were going to hit them in the mouth first,” Bonton said. “ … We just wanted to hit them in the mouth first.”
The Cougars certainly played the role of aggressors in Thursday’s rematch, racing to an 8-1 lead and entering the halftime break with a 42-32 advantage. UCLA’s Cody Riley picked up his third and fourth fouls within the first minute of the second half, and WSU took advantage of the forward’s time on the bench, extending the lead to 62-39 on a triple from Bonton with 11:56 to play.
Bonton, who scored seven points in the OSU game, used almost every move in his toolbox to score 20-plus points for the eighth time in Pac-12 play this season.
In the first half Bonton crossed up Jaime Jaquez Jr. to create space before pulling up a three-pointer as the UCLA guard was backpedaling. During another play, the WSU guard curled around the key and released a high floater with his right hand while falling back before watching his shot kiss the backboard and fall into the basket.
“He gets a pretty long leash,” WSU coach Kyle Smith said. “I know at times I’ll hear it from my dad. He’s about the harshest critic, but I’m like, you’ve to play that hand every now and then, let him go. We had all the markers on the craps board sometimes … that No. 1 was coming up and we were hitting.
“Sometimes you’ve got to let it roll, and when he gets in those stretches he can really help us.”
The Cougars needed Bonton’s scoring early and late, as UCLA closed what was a 23-point deficit to seven with 1:18 left, employing a frantic, full-court pressure that forced WSU into a handful of late turnovers. The senior steadied his team inside the final minute, draining three of four free throws to seal WSU’s second home win over UCLA under Smith and the team’s third win in the past four games.
“That can happen, I’ve seen it to happen to teams that have been up,” Smith said. “They start getting pressed, they panic a little. We definitely panicked, we didn’t have Noah (Williams). Noah had fouled out. He’s a big part of what we do, and (I’m) proud of our guys. … It was nice to have a comfortable lead to take it home.”
For the second time this season, WSU had trouble containing UCLA point guard Tyger Campbell, who finished with 17 points, five assists and three rebounds. Johnny Juzang had a strong second half to finish with 25 points and seven rebounds. But the other Bruins scored just 31 points combined, on 13 of 32 shooting, and UCLA shot 25% from beyond the arc after making 56% in the first meeting.
Over the next eight days, the Cougars (12-8, 5-8) will play four games at home, beginning Saturday with a 5 p.m. tipoff against No. 20 USC. The Trojans (16-3, 10-2) are coming off a 69-54 win over Washington in Seattle. With seven games remaining, the Cougars will need to go just 2-5 to finish with the program’s first winning regular-season record since 2010-11.