By Chris Foster Los Angeles Times
LOS ANGELES — It was February 1993, the last time the UCLA men’s basketball team traveled to Pullman and came away with anything other than a win.
Freshman Shabazz Muhammad, the Bruins’ leading scorer this season, was nine months from being born. Kyle Anderson, a freshman who is UCLA’s leading rebounder, was born seven months after that loss.
“Wow,” said Jordan Adams, who was born 17 months after the 67-56 loss. “That’s a long time ago.”
There have been 19 games since, and UCLA has won every one of them.
UCLA renews its annual pilgrimage to the rolling hills of the Palouse today, the first leg in a trek to the Northwest that has actually brought mixed results. Because as well as the Bruins have fared in Pullman, they have struggled in Seattle, where they will play Washington on Saturday.
UCLA has not won in Seattle since 2004, when Muhammad, Anderson and Adams were still in elementary school.
The two-stop trip has championship implications. UCLA, tied with Oregon for the Pac-12 Conference lead, can claim at least a share of the title with two victories.
The No. 23-ranked Bruins (22-7 overall, 12-4 in Pac-12 play) will be a heavy favorite to notch a 20th consecutive victory on the road against Washington State, which is 11-18 overall and last in the standings with a 2-14 league record.
“Let’s not jinx it,” UCLA Coach Ben Howland said when asked about the winning streak. “We’ve been fortunate, very fortunate. I go back to my second year at UCLA. They didn’t foul us and we made a three-pointer to tie the game. We won in overtime.”
Indeed, Howland can recite a list of UCLA’s narrow escapes in Pullman. Since 1993, the Bruins have won two games in overtime and six others by three or fewer points.
But always they have won.
“I’m wary,” Howland said.
That’s the message he has had for his young team, which includes four freshmen in the Bruins’ eight-man rotation who have never visited Pullman.
“Coach was just telling us about the trip,” Adams said Monday. “It’s going to be really hard to go up there and play. He said how the city is really rural and there is nobody really around. He told us to get ready for, uh….”
A desolate place?
“Yeah,” Adams said.
Tyus Edney, UCLA’s’ director of basketball operations, can lend firsthand testimony. He was a sophomore on the 1993 UCLA team that lost in Pullman, though he has a hard time remembering it.
“I just remember they had some really good teams,” Edney said.
So why the year-in, year-out success ever since?
“That’s a good question,” Edney said. “It would seem like there would be a little bit of a glitch in 19 years.”
One reason for UCLA’s run is that only three Washington State teams have made the NCAA tournament in those 19 seasons. But Howland pointed out that two years ago, the Bruins needed two free throws by Malcolm Lee with 48 seconds to play to get to overtime in a 58-54 victory.
“The first thing Coach said to us before practice was, ‘This is a trap game,’” senior guard Larry Drew II said. “We don’t want to get caught in it. We’re tied for first and they’re in last place. But it is always tough to go up there.”
Across the state, the danger is more obvious. Washington’s Hec Edmundson Pavilion has been a painful stop for the Bruins since an overtime victory in 2004. Eight straight is UCLA’s longest losing streak on a conference opponent’s court since World War II.
“That place is just hard to play in,” junior forward Travis Wear said. “Their fans are really crazy and they are close to the court. They’re clever too. Washington gets in your face and the fans can really get them going.”
The Huskies have been good too, going to the NCAA tournament six times since 2004.
Twice, loses at Washington have cost the Bruins at least a share of the conference title. UCLA finished a game behind the first-place Huskies in 2009 and a game behind Arizona in 2011.
A victory this time could give the Bruins a title.
“We can’t get ahead of ourselves,” Muhammad said. “We’ve got a tough game at Washington State first.”
So it’s been said, now for the 20th consecutive season.