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Arizona sprints past Colorado, will face UCLA in Pac-12 championship

Arizona's Aaron Gordon (right) makes a spectacular block against Colorado's Xavier Johnson (Chris Williams/Icon SMI) Arizona's Aaron Gordon (right) makes a spectacular block against Colorado's Xavier Johnson (Chris Williams/Icon SMI)

Midway through the second half, Aaron Gordon took flight. With Colorado down eight, forward Xavier Johnson drove the baseline, leapt off two feet and cocked the ball behind his head for a one-handed dunk. In a flash, Gordon exploded across the lane and thwarted Johnson’s attempt with his right hand. It was one of several ridiculously athletic plays Gordon has made this season, and it punctuated the game-turning 24-8 run the Wildcats used in the second half to ease past the Buffaloes, 63-43, and into Saturday’s championship game.

H/T Pac 12 Network

“We’re excited,” Arizona coach Sean Miller said in a TV interview afterward. “It sounds good to get there, but there’s only one team that’s gonna leave Vegas happy.”

Before a pro-Wildcats crowd at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas, Arizona asserted its dominance and rightful claim to a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament by following up Thursday’s 32-point drubbing of Utah in the quarterfinals with a comfortable win over a stronger foe. Though the Wildcats entered the conference tourney not needing to brandish their profile any further to earn a top seed, they’ve overwhelmed their two opponents and look every bit the dominating group that was ranked No. 1 in the Associated Press Poll earlier this season. The last two games, in other words, have given the committee no reason to second guess Arizona’s worthiness as a No. 1.

Despite the loss, the Buffaloes – with a resumé featuring five wins against teams ranked in the top 50 of the RPI, no bad losses and good strength of schedule and RPI figures – will likely earn an at-large bid. Colorado is listed in the “lock” category and slotted as a No. 9 seed on SI bubble watcher Michael Beller’s latest bracket.

The Wildcats led by just three at the break after guard Gabe York drilled a three pointer with three seconds to go in the first half. Colorado succumbed to Arizona’s superior athleticism and stifling defense in the second stanza. Gordon, guard Nick Johnson, forward Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and the rest of the Wildcats limited driving lanes, allowed the Buffs few clean looks and – with Gordon’s snuff the shining example – contested Colorado’s attempts at the rim.

A day earlier, Colorado edged Cal in the quarterfinals behind 17 points from point guard Askia Booker. The Wildcats’ rangy defense frustrated Booker, holding him to 12 points on 4-of-14 shooting, and limiting the Buffs to  .77 points per possession. The Wildcats, who got 16 points from Johnson and 12 from point guard T.J. McConnell, scored 1.12 PPP.

UCLA 84, Stanford 59

A year ago, UCLA ended Arizona’s run in the Pac-12 tournament when guard Jordan Adams scored 24 points in a two-point win in the semifinals. The Bruins will have to take their crack at the Wildcats in the championship game this time around.

UCLA earned its spot in the title bout by crushing Stanford in the second semifinal game. Coach Steve Alford’s team attacked the Cardinal early and didn’t relent until the game was out of reach. UCLA led 14-5 at the first official TV timeout, 44-29 at halftime and 68-42 midway through the second half. Guard/forward Kyle Anderson scored 13 points, grabbed eight rebounds, dished out seven assists and recorded three steals, and guard Norman Powell added 22 points. The Bruins shot 65 percent from the field.

“The challenge is ahead of us obviously, but we have an opportunity to win a Pac-12 Championship,” First-year Bruins coach Steve Alford said afterward. “Now that's exciting in your first year. We're 25 wins. These guys have done a lot of good things. But as we've talked about, it's March. UCLA, it's all about March.”

One day after dominating Arizona State in the quarterfinals, Stanford looked worn out against the Bruins. Forward Dwight Powell was one of the lone bright spots for the Cardinal; he scored 16 points on 5-of-9 shooting. The Cardinal missed its fair share of shots – it shot 39 percent from the field and 28 percent from three-point range – but its biggest problem was not being able to stop UCLA on the other end of the floor. Stanford allowed an average of 102.4 points per possession during Pac-12 play, good for fifth among league opponents. On Friday night, UCLA went off for 1.31 PPP, while Stanford managed just 0.92.

A 25-point loss isn’t the way any team wants to end its season. The good news for Stanford? It will probably make the NCAA Tournament. The Cardinal has beaten five teams ranked in the top 50 of the RPI and incurred no truly bad losses. Beating Arizona State, a fellow bubble team, Friday probably put Stanford in safe territory. Beller lists the Cardinal as a No. 10 seed.

The Bruins, meanwhile, will look to unleash their potent offense against the best defense in the country. The Wildcats have surrendered an average of 0.72 points per possession in their first two tournament games. UCLA has scored an average of 1.25. Even for a scorching hot team like the Bruins, coming off one of their most impressive performances of the season, points won’t come easy against Miller’s team.

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