UCLA forward Tyler Honeycutt shoots over Washington State forward Brock… (Dean Hare / Associated Press )
Reporting from Pullman, Wash.
Ben Howland had his pick of halftime speeches.
The UCLA coach could have addressed his team's clueless defense, off-kilter offense or inability to match Washington State's inspired effort, the Cougars down two starters but up by 13 points.
Two words sufficed: NCAA tournament.
"I told them, 'I want you to come out with passion and intensity like this game is going to either get us in or get us out of the NCAA tournament,' " Howland said, "because I really believed that."
Based on the final 25 minutes, dancing days are here again.
UCLA roared back to force overtime before pulling out a 58-54 victory in the extra period Saturday at Friel Court after key steals by Tyler Honeycutt and Jerime Anderson and a flurry of free throws by Malcolm Lee despite a balky left knee.
The Bruins (22-9 overall, 13-5 in the Pacific 10 Conference) ensured a second-place conference finish and all but guaranteed a return to the NCAA tournament after a one-year absence. UCLA will open the Pacific Life Pac-10 tournament at 6 p.m. Thursday against the winner of Wednesday's game between Arizona State and either Stanford or Oregon.
Several Bruins stepped up with their team on the verge of its first loss in Pullman since 1993.
Washington State (19-11, 9-9) had the ball with the score tied at 54-54 in the final minute of overtime when Honeycutt read a play and knocked the ball to teammate Reeves Nelson, whose pass to Lee resulted in Lee being fouled underneath the Bruins' basket with 6.9 seconds remaining.
Lee, whose two free throws with 8.9 seconds left in regulation had sent the game into overtime, made two more from the line to give UCLA a 56-54 lead. Anderson then forced a turnover in the backcourt when he deflected a ball off Washington State's Marcus Capers with 5.6 seconds to go.
The Cougars fouled Lee again and he made two more free throws, his clutch foul shooting more than offsetting a two-for-10 performance from the field.
"I wanted the ball in that situation," said Lee, who is scheduled to undergo an MRI on the knee he injured when he landed hard late in regulation. "I knew I could knock them down."
Nelson also was a go-to guy for UCLA, finishing with 23 points on 10-for-13 shooting to go with eight rebounds. The other Bruins combined to make only 11 of 41 shots (26.8%).
Howland was so ebullient after UCLA escaped with its 18th consecutive victory here that he kissed a reporter on the forehead.
"That's a first," Bruins freshman center Joshua Smith said. "I've never seen that."
There was also a surprise moment before the game when Washington State standout Klay Thompson, suspended indefinitely for drug possession, took a courtside microphone and addressed the crowd.
"I would do anything today to play, but unfortunately that's not the case," said Thompson, the Pac-10's leading scorer who was cited for marijuana possession late Thursday night. "I just want to apologize and say I'm truly sorry."
The Bruins had all the regrets once the game started. Galvanized by the loss of Thompson and guard Reggie Moore (sprained ankle), the Cougars took a 32-17 lead thanks to a new offense that generated easy baskets.
"When they're back-picking and cutting behind you," Anderson said, "then you start losing track of your man, he gets behind you and next thing you know, they got a layup."
UCLA opened the second half by repeatedly working the ball inside to Smith and Nelson, wiping out its halftime deficit in the first 7:57. A putback by Nelson gave UCLA a four-point lead with 7:22 left, but the Cougars rattled off eight consecutive points to take a 47-43 advantage.
Honeycutt made a three-pointer to pull the Bruins to within a point, and Washington State's Faisal Aden converted only one of two free throws with 14 seconds left to extend the Cougars' cushion to 48-46.
Lee then drove toward the basket and was fouled. He made both free throws to tie the score, a nail-biting prelude to his overtime heroics.
"These games take life off my expectancy," Howland said. "It's brutal."