LAS VEGAS — The difference between Arizona and UCLA on Friday night was simple.
Arizona had Deandre Ayton, and the Bruins didn’t.
The Wildcats’ dominant 7-foot-1 freshman shook off a subpar performance a day earlier against Colorado to take over for Arizona at crunch time, scoring seven straight points at the start of overtime to lead Arizona to a 78-67 win in the Pac-12 Conference semifinals at T-Mobile Arena.
After going just 4-for-14 with 10 points and six rebounds before fouling out against the Buffaloes in the quarterfinals, Ayton finished his monster game against the Bruins with 32 points and 14 rebounds. Arizona outscored UCLA 11-0 in overtime to advance to their fourth league championship game in five seasons.
“I had some butterflies the first game (against Colorado),” Ayton said. “It was just business after that first game. The nervousness went away and it was just business after that.”
Ayton was unstoppable throughout the game, but at no time more so than in the extra session. After breaking the 67-67 regulation tie with a single free throw, Ayton posted down three consecutive field goals in three different ways — converting a layup off an assist from Allonzo Trier, knocking down a mid-range jumper, and following a Trier miss with a tip-in to push the Bruins into what proved to be an insurmountable hole.
Ayton finished 13-for-16 from the field and 5-for-6 at the free throw line. He also collected three assists, two blocked shots, and two steals in 40 minutes. The Wildcats trailed 30-26 at halftime and, after leading the Pac-12 during the regular season with a rebounding margin of plus-7.4 in league games, they watched the Bruins produce a 22-13 edge on the glass in the first half.
It was a different Arizona team after the break, with the Wildcats opening the second half with seven consecutive points. Big shots from UCLA’s Thomas Welsh (17 points, 17 rebounds) and Aaron Holiday (15 points) kept the Bruins close, but Ayton simply proved too formidable down the stretch.
Arizona outrebounded UCLA 29-11 in the second half.
“(Rebounding) is probably the only thing we talked about,” Arizona coach Sean Miller said. “We had zero offensive rebounds (in the first half). If you’re our team, you can’t do that. And UCLA had some killer second shots in the first half. It’s not often that you can turn that around, but we had 10 second shots in the second half, and I believe UCLA had two. So the rebounding advantage swinging our way — that, and guarding Aaron Holiday — were probably the two biggest things that helped us win.”
While 15th-ranked Arizona is guaranteed an NCAA Tournament bid regardless of the result of Saturday’s championship match, UCLA (21-11) will teeter on the NCAA Tournament bubble until Sunday’s selection show. The Bruins went 3-1 against the Pac-12’s top two teams, Arizona and USC, but if UCLA doesn’t make it the setbacks coach Steve Alford’s club might lament the most were its two losses against Colorado.
“We feel good,” Alford said. “We were third in this league and we were consistent all year. We were consistent in the nonleague and we got good nonleague wins. We were able to get 11 league wins and finish third in this league. We were consistent in the league, and we got to the semifinals by beating a very good Stanford team and then fought a top-10 team in Arizona to overtime. I think we’ve done enough to show we pass the eye test.”
Arizona 78, UCLA 67
At T-Mobile Arena
Goloman 3-4 1-2 9, Welsh 7-13 0-0 17, Holiday 5-20 2-2 15, Wilkes 6-14 0-0 12, Ali 2-5 0-0 5, Olesinski 0-2 0-0 0, Hands 3-7 0-0 6, C. Smith 1-3 0-0 3. Totals 27-68 3-4 67.
Ayton 13-16 5-6 32, Ristic 4-12 0-0 8, Jackson-Cartwright 4-7 0-0 11, Alkins 5-14 4-6 15, Trier 2-13 3-4 9, D. Smith 0-0 0-0 0, Akot 0-1 0-0 0, Pinder 1-1 1-2 3. Totals 29-66 13-18 78.
UCLA 30 26 0 — 67
3-point field goals — UCLA 10-35 (Goloman 2-3, Welsh 3-6, Holiday 3-12, Wilkes 0-4, Ali 1-2, Olesinski 0-2, Hands 0-4, C. Smith 1-2); Arizona 7-24 (Ayton 1-1, Jackson-Cartwright 3-5, Alkins 1-5, Trier 2-10, D. Smith 0-2, Akot 0-1). Total fouls — UCLA 17; Arizona 10. Rebounds — UCLA 33 (Welsh 17); Arizona 42 (Ayton 14). Assists — UCLA 12 (Welsh, Holiday, Wilkes 3); Arizona 9 (Jackson-Cartwright 4). Fouled out — Goloman.