- Andy Katz, ESPN.com Senior Writer
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WESTWOOD, Calif. -- Now Kevin Love can hit 3s?
Are you serious? What's next? End-to-end dribbling displays?
On a day when UCLA had its self-proclaimed best defensive effort of the season in the first half, Love proved that he might be the most complete freshman (and player, at times) in the country by making 2-of-3 3s that helped the No. 5 Bruins stretch Washington State's defense in an 81-74 victory at Pauley Pavilion on Saturday. The win puts the Bruins in early control for the Pac-10 title and first in line for the benefits that come with a league championship (more on that later).
"He made us pay," Washington State coach Tony Bennett said of Love as the No. 4-ranked Cougars (14-1 overall, 2-1 Pac-10) suffered their first loss of the season. "Love scores so well and is a multidimensional player that it's so tough to keep him off the glass. He's as good as I've seen as a big guy at his age. He lived up to the hype."
Love did. So, too, did UCLA (16-1, 4-0). But first, let's discuss Love some more.
Washington State junior center Aron Baynes anticipated this matchup for months. He had heard all about Love. So had his teammates. In the preseason, the Cougars couldn't wait to see Baynes tussle with Love in the post. Baynes, a native of Australia, is a large man at 6-foot-10 and 270 pounds. Love, a native of Oregon, is his equal at 6-10 and 271 pounds.
But the matchup wasn't close. Love scored 27 points and grabbed 14 boards. He made those two 3s and 9 of 12 shots from the floor. He also had four assists, one turnover and two steals. He committed only two fouls.
Baynes scored eight points and was 1-of-3 from the field and 6-of-10 at the free-throw line. He finished with seven boards and committed four fouls.
Baynes was in no mood to talk after the game, choosing to keep his headphones on as he was the last to leave the team's locker room.
"This is why I picked UCLA, for these matchups," Love said. "Baynes is a big boy and gave me some space. I knew the double-teams were coming, so I took what they gave me and made a countermove."
UCLA point guard Darren Collison said that the Bruins were appreciative of Lorenzo Mata-Real's offense the past two seasons but that it is refreshing to have a post player such as Love who can score consistently.
The guards now have complete confidence to drive and kick it out to Love on the perimeter, too.
"Ball screen is a big part of their offense, and if they can kick it back to Love, then you've got to worry about him on the outside," Washington State guard Taylor Rochestie said. "He showed his versatility and made us pay."
WSU senior wing Kyle Weaver said forcing a big man to go out and guard Love stretches the defense even further.
UCLA coach Ben Howland decided to start working Love's 3-point shooting into the offense over the past few games. After shooting just 4-of-13 from 3-point range in 13 nonconference games, Love entered Saturday 2-for-6 on 3s in the first three Pac-10 games, a stat he was well aware of after the game as he recited his shooting stats. Expect him to get even more looks after Saturday's performance.
"He's in better condition [now]," Howland said. "He missed some 3s [earlier this season]. He was tired. He's in the best shape of his life right now. He's a big-time player."
"That's why those NBA guys all look at him, because he can pick and pop all day long," said Howland after a game played in front of 27 scouts from 23 NBA teams.
North Carolina's Tyler Hansbrough gets praised for his relentless work on the offensive glass. But let's start shifting some of those accolades out West. Love worked the offensive glass for four boards and key buckets Saturday.
And his free-throw shooting continued to be critical for the Bruins. He was 7-of-10, with the final 2-for-2 needed to stave off an improbable WSU comeback.
UCLA flustered Washington State offensively as the Bruins ran out to an 18-point lead with 4 minutes, 15 seconds, left in the first half. Howland said the Bruins' defense on the Cougars in the first half was the best he's seen since he's been at UCLA. WSU was helpless, missing layups and shots as the Bruins physically knocked the Cougars back on their heels. Bennett said they hadn't been defended like that this season.
How bad was it? It was almost Saint Louis bad (SLU scored a record-low 20 points at George Washington on Thursday). WSU had only eight points in the first 15 minutes of the half. It finished with 22 first-half points.
"Everyone was just fired up," UCLA wing Josh Shipp said of the defensive effort.
Ahh, you knew it wouldn't last the whole game, not against this Cougars team. But no one saw what was coming late. WSU made seven 3-pointers in the final 1:30 to draw within 77-74 with 13 seconds left before Love went to the line to convert the two free throws.
Washington State senior Derrick Low made three of those 3-pointers and finished with 24 points (all in the second half after he was limited to seven first-half minutes because of two early fouls).
And although Shipp said the Bruins' inability to "step on their throat" and put away the Cougs gives the visitors momentum for the Feb. 7 rematch in Pullman, Bennett was quick to point out that it would have been a blowout without the flurry of 3s at the end of the game.
But that doesn't matter to Howland, who was impressed with the Cougars.
"They're really good," Howland said. "Washington State might not lose another game until we play them again. I could easily see them running the table until we play them. Who's going to beat them?"
That question clearly could be applied to UCLA now, too. Although it is still early in Pac-10 play, Howland emphasized the win because of the repercussions it might have for his Bruins in March.
"If you saw him when we won the game, he was screaming in the locker room," Love said.
"I was amped up because I know how important this game is," Howland said.
Howland has told his team recently that every game matters on the road to becoming a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. He has mentioned the sites and points to Anaheim (first and second round) and Phoenix (regional semifinals and finals), which would give UCLA a potentially friendly and short trek to the Final Four in San Antonio.
"It's early to talk about that publicly," Howland said. "But I do talk about that with my team. It was huge."
Huge enough to proclaim, at least in this space, that the Bruins are clearly in a class with North Carolina, Kansas and Memphis as the four elite teams this season.
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.
In a top-five matchup between Pac-10 powers, all UCLA needed was Kevin Love as the big freshman powered the Bruins to the win and an early lead in league play, writes Andy Katz.