LAS VEGAS — The last time Arizona cut down the nets in Las Vegas, the men’s basketball portion of the struggling Pac-12 Conference was reaching a new low.
That was in 2018, when the Wildcats won the league tourney to cap a season that began with the program getting ensnared in the FBI recruiting corruption scandal. UA, and the Pac-12, fizzled in that season’s NCAA Tournament, and it has been a long, slow climb back to respectability for the conference in the four years since.
In 2019, it was upstart Oregon that won the crown with four wins in four days. The start of the COVID-19 pandemic scuttled the 2020 tournament. And while Colorado fans surely were giddy by the Buffaloes’ title-game appearance last year in a fan-less tournament, few outside of Corvallis likely were overly enthused about Oregon State’s surprising run to the title.
The Pac-12’s climb back into national relevance began with an impressive showing at last year’s NCAA Tournament. And while the league is set to send only three teams into this year’s Big Dance, its championship match on Saturday night was a worthy finale.
The league’s top two teams, which also happen to be the two most storied programs in the conference, battling toe-to-toe before a raucous crowd and a national network audience. In the end it was top-seeded Arizona, clearly the Pac-12’s top team throughout the season, that finished the job with an 84-76 victory against second-seeded UCLA at T-Mobile Arena.
After voluntarily abstaining from last year’s Pac-12 tourney as a delayed punishment for the FBI scandal, hiring a new coach in Tommy Lloyd, and then being picked in a tie for fourth in the league’s preseason media poll, Arizona put the finishing touches on a No. 1 seed, and perhaps the top overall seed, when the 68-team NCAA Tournament field is announced on Sunday.
And Arizona capped its Pac-12 tournament run by winning the final two games, including Friday’s win against Colorado in the semifinals, without injured starting point guard Kerr Kriisa.
“Coming out this season, we had a big chip on our shoulders,” Arizona center Christian Koloko said. “Nobody really believed in us. We believed in ourselves. Our team just comes in every game with a chip on our shoulders and play hard every game. You take it game after game, and you just want to win every game. If we continue to do that, we’re going to have a really good run in March.”
UCLA led by five points at halftime and used a 10-2 run early in the second half to take a 53-41 lead before the Wildcats rallied in a hurry, unleashing a 15-2 run to recapture the lead with 12 minutes, 3 seconds remaining.
UCLA remained within one point before Arizona’s final dominant push, as the Wildcats gained some breathing room with a 9-2 burst. A fadeaway bucket from UCLA’s Jaime Jaquez kept the Bruins within four points with 2:28 to play, but UCLA managed just two points the rest of the way as Arizona iced the win at the free throw line.
One night after going 24-for-25 on free throws against the Buffs, the Wildcats went 23-for-28 at the line against UCLA. Defensively, Arizona held the Bruins to a 5-for-22 showing on 3-pointers and outrebounded UCLA 39-32. After shooting .520 against the Buffs, Arizona posted a nearly identical .519 shooting percentage against the Bruins.
“They were more physical and our defense left a lot to be desired,” said UCLA coach Mick Cronin, whose club also is squarely in line for a high seed in the NCAA Tournament. “Hopefully we’ll watch film and learn a lot about what it takes to beat a great team. But you give up 40 points in the paint and 23 free throws, you’re not beating anybody. Let alone a team as good as Arizona.”
Arizona’s Bennedict Mathurin, the Pac-12’s Player of the Year, scored a game-high 27 points to go with seven assists and four rebounds. Afterward he was named the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player, and he was joined on the all-tournament team by Koloko, Jaquez, UCLA’s Jules Bernard, USC’s Boogie Ellis, and Stanford’s Spencer Jones.
No. 2 Arizona 84, No. 13 UCLA 76
Johnson 0-1 0-0 0, Bernard 6-13 5-6 19, Campbell 6-15 1-1 14, Juzang 7-15 0-1 16, Jaquez 6-17 6-7 18, Riley 2-4 0-0 4, Clark 2-3 0-0 4, Nwuba 0-0 1-2 1, Watson 0-1 0-0 0, Singleton 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 29-69 13-17 76.
A.Tubelis 4-7 1-2 9, Koloko 5-9 3-3 13, Kier 2-3 0-0 4, Terry 5-9 3-4 15, Mathurin 6-14 13-15 27, Larsson 3-5 1-2 8, Ballo 0-3 2-2 2, Bal 2-2 0-0 6. Totals 27-52 23-28 84.
Halftime — UCLA 40-35. 3-point field goals — UCLA 5-22 (Juzang 2-4, Bernard 2-7, Campbell 1-4, Riley 0-1, Watson 0-1, Jaquez 0-5), Arizona 7-15 (Bal 2-2, Terry 2-4, Mathurin 2-7, Larsson 1-2). Rebounds — UCLA 32 (Jaquez 10), Arizona 39 (Koloko 10). Assists — UCLA 9 (Campbell 4), Arizona 20 (Terry, Mathurin 7). Total fouls — UCLA 21, Arizona 19. A — 14,401.