White lights too bright for Wildcats
By now, Arizona fans should be used to seeing the Wildcats start games slow, but there just wasn’t something right about the way they played in the opening minutes.
Arizona (16-2, 4-2) lost its first home game of the season Thursday night, 84-73, and unlike games against Colorado, Utah and Florida, the Wildcats were unable to battle back against UCLA and pull out a victory.
“We’ve been there a lot of times,” Arizona coach Sean Miller said. “I don’t know if we ever had that look in our eyes like, we’re here. It never did feel right, the whole game.”
The Bruins stormed out to a 21-5 lead, thanks to 12 missed shots in the first eight minutes of the game, three of which were layups.
“We definitely did miss a lot of easy ones,” sophomore guard Nick Johnson said. “I wouldn’t really say it’s being anxious or preparation or anything like that, we just have to do that better.”
But, in typical Wildcat fashion, Arizona battled back to bring the game within 10, 40-30, at halftime. Arizona should have felt fortunate to have still been in the game after shooting 31.4 percent in the first half, while allowing UCLA to shoot 56 percent from the field. For the season, UCLA has only converted 47 percent of its shot attempts.
Despite the “white-out” crowd, the overwhelming hype of the game and the daunting task of playing on the road, the Bruins were the better team Thursday night in McKale.
Arizona’s 7-foot center had a total of one rebound and zero points for the game. UCLA’s tallest players, twin forwards Travis and David Wear, scored a total of 21 points and garnered 10 total rebounds. It could have been more had Travis not had to exit the game at halftime because of concussion-like symptoms.
Arizona simply did not shine in the brightest of lights. At home, against a marquee opponent, in front of a sold-out crowd seemingly ready to attack a UCLA player should he have ventured anywhere near the stands, the Wildcats let the moment overwhelm them.
The Wildcats held a lead in the game for a whopping 53 seconds, a 1-0 lead that started the game, before giving up the 21-4 run that immediately took the crowd out of the game, while attempting to mount yet another comeback.
UCLA head coach Ben Howland acknowledged after the game that he had seen Arizona play Florida, San Diego State and Colorado, all single-digit victories for the Wildcats that were in doubt throughout the game. There would be no such magic against the Bruins.
“It’s nice to get a win, and be the first ones,” Howland said, referring to the Wildcats’ close wins against the aforementioned Gators, Aztecs and Buffaloes.
UCLA guards Shabazz Muhammad and Larry Drew II were seemingly two of the only players on the court who were not affected by the magnitude of the night, as Muhammad roasted the Wildcats for 23 points and Drew II led the game with nine assists, and only turned the ball over twice.
Arizona point guard Mark Lyons had a grand total of zero assists and five turnovers to go with his 16 points, before fouling out late in the second half.
“We never had an answer on how to defend those two players,” Miller said. “It was hard for us to adjust when we got down that big. We needed much more poise.”
That may be true, but Howland illustrated the night better.
“When the lights are on, the cameras are on, his level of play raises,” Howland said of Muhammad.
The same could not be said for the Wildcats.
A nationally televised, sell-out crowd all wearing white practically begging the Wildcats to pull out just one more magical win, but they couldn’t do it.
What’s going to happen on March 2, when the Wildcats head to Los Angeles to play the Bruins in Pauley Pavilion in another nationally televised game, this time featured as the college basketball game of the week on ESPN’s College Gameday, in front of what is almost certain to be another sell-out crowd?
As senior forward Solomon Hill put it after the game, “You get a game like this, you want to make the big play. Everybody wants to be the guy to stop that run.”
Against UCLA on Thursday night, no one was able to.