The Arizona Wildcats came up short again on Saturday, Jan. 9, and fell to the UCLA Bruins 81-76.
With the Arizona Wildcats not participating in the NCAA or Pac-12 tournament this season, their only hope at winning a trophy in 2021 would be from earning the regular season Pac-12 title. Thursday’s loss to USC and UCLA’s overtime win over Arizona State set up Saturday’s game against the Bruins to be a must-win for Arizona. UCLA now moves to 5-0 in conference play and sits alone at first place in the Pac-12. Arizona is now 9-3 overall and 3-3 in conference play.
"We had a lot of great moments on offense," head coach Sean Miller said. "But we can't get the value out of that because we just have no answer on defense. Straight line drives, in and around the basket, and the fouling is just off the charts right now."
Arizona kept its head afloat in the first half, despite UCLA shooting 60% (15-25) from the field in the first half and going on a 12-0 scoring run, taking a 37-30 lead with just under four minutes left in the first half. Arizona then made five-straight field goals to close out the first half with the score tied at 41.
UCLA jumped out to a 62-54 lead following a three-pointer from sophomore Johnny Juzang with 10:34 left to play. Arizona freshman Bennedict Mathurin shrunk the lead to 63-60 with back-to-back threes but it was the Wildcats’ struggling defense that stopped them from mounting a comeback and taking a lead in the second half. Miller wasn’t at all shy to criticize his team’s defense that has been a growing concern throughout the season.
“We can’t defend,” Miller said. “Every team presents its sub-set of problems and tonight, USC and if you really look closely at Washington State, we kind of willed that out but we were in that same kind of game here tonight. The difference was we couldn’t make the plays, the big rebounds, the big stops. If you get a couple stops down the home stretch, you're playing to win. The next shot puts you up but we could never quite put ourselves in that position.”
James Akinjo had 25 points and eight assists, bouncing back from his scoreless game against USC on Thursday. Akinjo went 4-7 from beyond the arc while Azuolus Tubelis added 15 points and eight rebounds.
Miller said after the game that Jemarl Baker Jr. injured his hand in the first half and limited his level of play throughout the game. Miller confirmed that they will have an X-ray on the redshirt junior to determine the severity of the injury.
“I don’t know if it’s broken, if it’s sprained,” Miller said. “We’re going to find out more over the next couple of days on his situation.”
Baker scored just four points on 23 minutes played, just seven minutes in the second half. He is now 0-15 on three-point attempts in the past three games and is shooting just 34.3 percent from deep this season.
Arizona is scheduled to play again on Thursday, Jan. 14, against Oregon State followed by Oregon on Saturday, Jan. 16.
“I think, offensively, I like what we’re doing. Defensively, we’re not even close and we have to fix that,” Miller said. “We’ll see how we do at Oregon State and Oregon. If we can be a better offensive and defensive team and foul less, I think it’ll go a long way towards us winning.”
Follow Jacob Mennuti on Twitter