The table was set for a tantalizing strength-on-strength matchup: Arizona’s elite defense against UCLA’s high-octane offense. Before a pro-Arizona crowd at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, the latter prevailed as the Bruins edged Arizona 75-71 in a fast-paced thriller that was as entertaining as it was competitive.
Arizona blasted its first two opponents in the Pac-12 Tournament. The average margin of victory in the Wildcats' wins over Utah on Thursday in the quarterfinals and Colorado on Friday in the semifinals was 26 points. The Utes and Buffs both scored less than 0.8 points per possession. Neither game was competitive late in the second half. Together, the blowouts left the impression that Arizona would roll to a comfortable win in Saturday’s championship game.
To do that, the Wildcats would need to stifle a UCLA team that bombarded Oregon and Stanford for a combined 166 points in its first two conference tournament games. Instead, the Bruins posted one of the most impressive offensive outputs of the year against an elite defensive team.
UCLA was able to find holes, and exploit them, in the Wildcats’ defense, which came into Saturday ranked first in the country in points allowed per possession. Jordan Adams, Kyle Anderson and Norman Powell combined to score 55 points and the Bruins gashed Sean Miller’s team for 1.09 points per possession, the most the Wildcats have yielded since December.
Anderson made two free throws with less than four minutes to go in the second half to knot the game at 68. Neither team scored over the next three minutes, and after a Bruins timeout near the one-minute mark, Adams drilled a huge three to put UCLA up three. After a series of misses, Arizona guard Nick Johnson hit a trey with two seconds left to pull the Wildcats within two, but Powell made two free throws in the waning seconds to seal the win.
Adams’ dagger will go down as the shot of the tournament. After screening for Anderson beyond the three-point line, Adams sprinted to the top of the arc, rose up and fired over Johnson, then fell to the floor, his legs collapsing beneath him, as the ball fell through the net. The sophomore, who missed last season’s Pac-12 Tournament championship after breaking his foot in the semifinals, finished with 19 points on 8-of-16 shooting. “We went with our money play,” Bruins coach Steve Alford said in a TV interview after the game. “Jordan’s been our go-to-guy.”
While Adams hit the biggest shot of game, tournament, and maybe UCLA’s season, Anderson – who was named the tournament’s most valuable player – deserves just as much credit for the win. He scored a team-high 21 points, grabbed 15 rebounds, dished out five assists and made a number of big plays in the second half.
The win gives UCLA another impressive data point to tack on a resumé that includes eight wins against teams ranked in the top 50 of the RPI, a 13-7 record against the top 100 and one loss to a team ranked outside the top 100. Entering Saturday the Bruins were projected as a No. 6 or No. 7 seed in most brackets. Beating Arizona, the RPI’s top-ranked team, could bump the Bruins up a seed line. “Arizona’s the best basketball team we played all year,” Alford said. Losing to a hot team like UCLA hardly disqualifies Arizona -- still a lock to be a No. 1 seed -- as a national championship contender. The Wildcats looked dominant in their first two conference tournament games, a little less so in the one that mattered most. UCLA should be commended for breaking down the nation’s stingiest defense, but the defensive effort Arizona submitted Saturday seems less an indication of serious flaws than an aberration. The Wildcats, and their vaunted D, will be ready for the NCAAs.