After back-to-back seasons in which UCLA knocked Arizona out of the Pac-12 Tournament, the No. 5 overall and top-seeded Wildcats finally got their revenge against the Bruins. Arizona advanced to the Pac-12 Tournament Championship game with its 70-64 victory over UCLA.
“Very proud of this group,” Arizona coach Sean Miller said. “Having said that, we’ve been in a championship game four times in the last five years. You don’t have to ask me how it feels because we haven’t won it. We know that.”
Arizona started the game on a 11-2 run before the team hit a snag. UCLA took advantage and went on a 25-16 run to close out the first half that ended with UCLA’s Bryce Alford hitting a 3-pointer just seconds before the halftime buzzer.
The beginning of the second half was much of the same, as both teams traded buckets and battled foul trouble. All eight Bruins who played drew a foul, with four players recording three or more fouls. UCLA was called for 23 fouls as a team.
UCLA guard Isaac Hamilton put up 36 points against USC on Thursday, but struggling and eventually fouling out against Arizona. Hamilton finished with six points, all of which came in the first half.
On the Arizona side, power forward Brandon Ashley lit up the scoreboard en route to a career-high 24 points. Ashley went 9-11 from the field, 6-7 from the free throw line and added seven rebounds.
“He was as big as it gets for us as a team,” Arizona forward Stanley Johnson said. “When he can play like that us, we are going to be really good.”
Johnson, who scored 15 points and hauled in nine rebounds, later said Ashley’s effort helped the UA advance to the Pac-12 Tournament Championship game yet again.
“Not only was he being active, but he was scoring and also defending,” Johnson said. “When he can do that, it’s something really special for us.”
Johnson’s late game heroics kept Arizona in the lead and gave the team its 30th win of the season. The freshman from Fullerton, Calif. scored seven points in the last 2:08 of the game, including a crucial 3-pointer that put Arizona up 66-61 with 37 seconds remaining.
While Johnson may have closed it out, Arizona’s 15-0 run about midway through the second half gave the team a chance. Before that run, UCLA held a 47-40 lead and had all the momentum.
UCLA guard Norman Powell gave the Bruins that seven-point lead with 12:07 left in the second half, prompting Miller to call a timeout.
Whatever he said to the Wildcats worked because Arizona guard Elliott Pitts scored shortly after the timeout and kick-started the 15-0 run.
Arizona point guard T.J. McConnell finished with 10 points, 11 assists, six rebounds and three steals in 37 minutes of action. McConnell said getting over the hump against UCLA came down to heart.
“Losing to these guys the last two years has pretty much left a bad taste in all of our mouths,” McConnell said. “We were down 47-40 and we all just said ‘we have to dig deep for this one’. Whatever heart you have, you have to give it. We went on a run and our fans were behind us.”
Looking forward, Arizona faces the winner of Friday’s Utah and Oregon matchup in Saturday’s Pac-12 Tournament Championship at 8 p.m. The game can be seen on ESPN.
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