Sean Miller can’t buy a Pac-12 championship. The University of Arizona head basketball coach has been to the finals of the Pac-12 Tournament four times in the last five years and came up empty for the fourth time yesterday as UCLA upset the favored Wildcats, winning in the final minute of an action-packed thriller.
Arizona, which is the regular-season conference champion, was the No. 1 seed in the tourney, won 30 games this season and held the No. 1 spot in the nation for eight weeks. The No. 2 seed UCLA (26-8) was unranked.
And to add further insult to injury, this is the first year for UCLA’s new head coach, Steve Alford.
The Bruins were able to play their kind of game yesterday. Alford was hoping for a score in the 70s, and that’s just what he got in the 75-71 win. This was a battle between one of the best defenses in the country (Arizona) and one of the best offensive teams in UCLA, and Miller was hoping to keep the score of the game somewhere in the 50s.
From the beginning of the game, it was apparent that was going to be a tall order. UCLA was off and running.
Miller did what he could to slow down the hi-octane UCLA offense. He called a time-out at the 15:39 mark of the first half when the Bruins began pulling away 10-3. Then he sent Gabe York into the game and the sophomore guard kept things from getting out of hand by sinking three 3-pointers that kept the Bruins from getting beyond an 11-point advantage.
That gave the Wildcats some time to get their legs under them and find their offensive rhythm. They pulled to within two points at 33-31 on an alley-oop pass from Aaron Gordon to Nick Johnson that brought the Arizona fans to their feet. Gordon added another point on a free throw shortly after that to get Arizona within one before UCLA closed out the half ahead 43-40.
UCLA held the lead throughout the half and were on track to hit their average of 82 points a game, which has kept them in the top 10 of teams nationwide and played perfectly into their game plan.
“I like the pace, I like the tempo of this game,” Alford told a sideline reporter as he headed into the locker room.
For the first 20 minutes, it was the potent Bruin offense that held the upper hand as the Wildcats tried to slow it down and do a better job of defending in transition, a problem that has plagued them repeatedly this season. And UCLA was red-hot, shooting 58.1 percent from the field in the first half.
By the start of the second half the Cats had recovered from the get-it-and-go transition offense the Bruins used to put them on their heels to start the game. Within four minutes, they had tied the game at 48 and, 30 seconds later, had their first lead of the game, 49-48, on a Gordon free throw.
Arizona couldn’t get their three-point shooting on track, but managed to keep the Bruins from pulling out to more than a five-point lead. The Cats regained the lead at 61-60, but it was back-and-forth scoring and lead changes the rest of the way until Jordan Adams gave the Bruins a three-point lead at 71-68 with 30 seconds left to play – a lead they would hold the rest of the way.
With the victory, the Bruins showed they deserved to be a ranked team and worthy of a ticket to the Big Dance. As tournament champion, that becomes an automatic now. And it puts them on everybody’s radar going into next week’s start to the NCAA Tournament.
But for Arizona fans, it raises questions.
What happens when the Cats come up against a tourney opponent with a high-efficiency transition game? It took them half a game to recover from the UCLA fast-break.
Can they stay composed in the final stages of a really close game? Against UCLA, they unraveled in the final minutes, creating uncharacteristic turnovers and missing critical free throws. They were 6-of-16 from the line for the game, and missed the front ends of a couple of 1-and-1 opportunities down the stretch.
Can they maintain 40 minutes of consistency with their much-heralded defense that is ranked sixth nationally? Getting it on track yesterday proved to problematic, as the Bruins led from the start, going up by as many as 11 points during the fist half and shooting the lights out.
But no doubt, the biggest question will be whether this team, which won the regular-season conference title, can put two major setbacks in one week – the loss to Oregon in the last game of the regular season and the upset by UCLA – behind them and focus on getting ready for the challenges ahead in the Madness of March.
There was some question about whether the Wildcats could recover from losing their prolific 6’8″ forward Brandon Ashley in a Feb. 1 game against California. They struggled to get a couple of wins after that and were on the road to recovery. But then they were devastated in a stunning 69-66 loss to rival Arizona State.
Now UCLA has put them on the canvas again, and may have put the Wildcats’ anticipated No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament in jeopardy.
And whether they can get up and continue the fight this time will define their character – and determine how far through the tournament this team will travel.
(Photo: Arizona Athletics)