LAS VEGAS (AP) — Arizona fought its way back from some early defensive breakdowns and kept the game close down the stretch, where the Wildcats usually excel.
For one of the few times this season, the Wildcats couldn’t come through, leading to another loss in the Pac-12 championship game.
Hurt by missed free throws and missed opportunities, No. 4 Arizona lost 75-71 to UCLA on Saturday for the Wildcats’ third loss in the Pac-12 title game under coach Sean Miller.
“It’s hard to be in a championship game. It’s hard,” Miller said. “There are a lot of good teams that don’t make it to their conference tournament’s championship game, and we’ve done it three times in four years. We want to win the championship, but we’re proud of the fight.”
It was quite a fight. The Pac-12’s two best teams traded big plays, big blows and floor burns.
The Wildcats locked UCLA down in the second half after an offensive show in the first.
The Bruins (26-8) countered by doing the same thing to Arizona down the stretch, and then made the big plays against the big-play Wildcats to finish it off.
UCLA point guard Kyle Anderson was at his all-around best, finishing with 21 points, 15 rebounds and five assists. Jordan Adams made a big 3-pointer with 45 seconds left and scored 19 points. Norman Powell scored 15 points and combined with David Wear to hit four free throws in the final five seconds.
After three games in three days, the Bruins are Pac-12 champions in their first season under coach Steve Alford and on a big roll headed into the NCAA tournament.
“This gives us the confidence that we not only play with anybody, but beat anybody,” Alford said. “But you’ve got to get hot and stay hot.”
Arizona (30-4) started flat defensively, clawed back behind its offense and shut down the Bruins through most of the second half.
The Wildcats were unable to finish it off for one of the rare times this season, hurt by 10 missed free throws and questionable shot selection down the stretch.
Nick Johnson led Arizona with 22 points and Kaleb Tarczewski added 12. Aaron Gordon had 11 points, eight rebounds and eight assists for the Wildcats, who may have lost out on a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament with the loss.
“We lost a game we could have won,” Miller said. “Jordan Adams hit a great shot and I believe some of the things we learned in today’s game will better serve us for the biggest prize, why we all do this, and that’s to hopefully advance next week in the NCAA tournament.”
After 10 games in three days, the Pac-12 tournament came down to UCLA and Arizona, the top two seeds, on a big roll since arriving in Sin City.
Arizona, the conference’s regular-season champion, overwhelmed its first two opponents with its don’t-let-them-breathe defense. The Wildcats raced into the tournament record books with their 32-point win over Utah in the quarterfinals and cranked up the highlight reel in the second half of its semifinal rout over Colorado, allowing 82 combined points in the two games.
UCLA swamped Oregon in its opener, turning what was supposed to be a track meet into a stomping. The Bruins did the same thing to Stanford in the semifinals, all but putting the game out of reach in the opening five minutes.
These teams met once during the regular season, Jan. 9 in Westwood. Arizona ended a three-game losing streak to the Bruins in that one, escaping with a 79-75 win despite 17 turnovers and blowing a 13-point lead in the final 6Â½ minutes.
UCLA had the advantage early in the rematch by doing what two previous tournament opponents couldn’t: Score on the Wildcats.
Pushing the pace at every turn, the Bruins got shots seemingly wherever and whenever they wanted.
UCLA used a 12-0 run to go up 14-3 and kept pouring ’em in against one of the nation’s best defenses. The Bruins hit 18 of 31 shots and scored 43 points in the first half — more than Utah did the entire game against Arizona and matching Colorado’s total.
“They came out and punched us in the mouth,” Johnson said.
The Wildcats kicked their offense into gear to get back in it, shaking off some questionable shots in the opening minutes with a string of 3-pointers, including three by Gabe York. Arizona shot 16 of 30, including 5 of 8 from the arc, to close to 43-40 at the half.
The game turned from an offensive show to a defensive shutdown in the second, every possession a struggle to get off a pass, much less a good shot.
Travis Wear and Gordon typified the effort of the entire game late in the half, sprinting from beyond midcourt, simultaneously diving and skidding across the floor for a loose ball.
Wear came up with the ball and the Bruins the win, giving them a big notch on the belt in their first season under Alford.
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