UA shifts focus to Big Dance after Pac-12 loss
LAS VEGAS — Arizona (30-4) is moving on and leaving one goal behind.
The Wildcats’ 75-71 loss to UCLA in the Pac-12 tournament championship game means they are now forced to start a Final Four run next week without a Pac-12 tournament title.
And that’s all right.
“The one point I made to our guys was this deal is about next week,” Arizona head coach Sean Miller said. “If we won this championship it’s about next week. If we lost this championship its about next week.”
Arizona junior guard Nick Johnson reacts to the Wildcats' loss as UCLA senior forward David Wear shoots a free throw in the last few seconds of Arizona's 71-75 loss to the Bruins in the Pac-12 Tournament Championship at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas on Saturday.
Against a tournament team in the Bruins, Arizona started slow and ended poor. Something Miller is going to focus on heading into next week.
Saturday UCLA jumped on the Wildcats. Running from baseline to baseline the Bruins looked as if they wanted to beat Arizona in their own game.
Led by point guard Kyle Anderson and shooting guard Norman Powell, the Bruins took an early 14-3 lead.
“They came out and punched us in the mouth,” Arizona guard Nick Johnson said. “Just the variety of which they score, threes twos, getting fouls, getting to the line and lay-up stuff like that. It’s really going to catch some people in the tournament by surprise.”
For most of Saturday’s game the Wildcats had no answer for Anderson, the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player. Anderson, a 6-foot-9 point guard, scored 21 points and had 15 defensive rebounds.
Powell, UCLA’s junior leader, had 15 points, most of which came early in the game.
Arizona was able to claw its way back into the game when Anderson and Powell both sat at the same time. Four 3-pointers later and the Wildcats turned an 11-point deficit into a more manageable two-point nail biter. With a closer game now in hand, Arizona found more of a rhythm and comfort on defense.
“We we’re much better defensively in the second half,” Miller said. “But we can’t warm up in the first eight or 10 minutes, spot them some baskets we normally don’t get and expect to win in March.”
While Arizona was handing UCLA points early in the game they also were taking away points from themselves.
The Wildcats made just six of their 16 free throw attempts. The Bruins made 21 of their 25.
“Free throws win championships,” Miller said. “If we make more free throws today, we’re probably out there doing what they’re doing.”
In the final four minutes UCLA made six of its seven free throw attempts. Arizona missed its two free throw attempts, both the front ends of one-and-ones.
“We need to focus more on our free throws,” Arizona forward Rondae Hollis-Jefferson said.
Even after missing 62 percent of its free throws Arizona still had a chance in the end. But at the final media timeout leading by one with 3:59 left on the clock, the Wildcats’ lost their poise.
Arizona turned the ball over three times and failed to execute the game plan.
“We don’t need a three,” Miller said he told his team in his timeout speech trailing by three with 45 seconds on the clock.
And sure enough in the final minute of the game Arizona attempted four shots, all 3-pointers.
“This is my fault,” Miller said. “I’m the coach. We lost our poise a little bit.”
As for UCLA, they kept their poise. Going into the final four minutes of the game the Bruins had four timeouts left. UCLA head coach Steve Alford made a conscious effort to use all of them and said he told his team that they were going to break the game up into four one-minute games.
“Lets go as hard as you can,” Alford said he told his team. “We’ll give you Sunday and Monday off and lets get after it here in these four minutes. These guys did some good things in the last four-minutes.”
Four more balanced minutes was all Arizona needed to beat UCLA. And now going forward four more dropped minutes is all it will take to end a final four run.
“There’s always tomorrow, for now,” Hollis-Jefferson said. “Right now all we’re worried about is the NCAA Tournament.”
— Follow Luke Della @LukeDella