UCLA did not come here to just give it a good try.
Their best defender back home, their top big man watching in a sweatsuit, the Bruins did not back down Saturday night at T-Mobile Arena while severely undermanned in a heavyweight title fight.
They just finally ran out of counterpunches in the Pac-12 tournament championship.
A wild game came down to a mad scramble of a finish. Arizona’s Azuolas Tubelis pushed his team into a two-point lead by making the first of two free throws with 5.8 seconds left before missing the second.
UCLA’s Jaime Jaquez Jr. grabbed the rebound and dribbled frantically downcourt before passing to freshman guard Dylan Andrews on the wing. Andrews rose for a three-pointer that caromed off the side of the rim at the buzzer, preserving the second-seeded Wildcats’ 61-59 victory over the top-seeded Bruins, whose 12-game winning streak came to an end.
“Wide-open shot to win the game,” UCLA coach Mick Cronin said afterward. “It is what it is.”
Eighth-ranked Arizona’s players lingered to celebrate their second consecutive title-game triumph over UCLA (29-5), while the No. 2 Bruins pondered where they might be seeded in the NCAA tournament.
Even massively short-handed, the Bruins had every opportunity to pull this one off.
Given a chance to tie the score with 6.8 seconds left, Bruins point guard Tyger Campbell, an 84.9% free-throw shooter who had been so clutch all week, missed the second of two free throws, the ball rolling around the rim before coming off. Cronin said Campbell was unnecessarily mad at himself afterward.
“I would put my career on the line,” Cronin said, “with Tyger at the line.”
Another opportunity had been lost for UCLA after Jaquez knocked the ball away from Tubelis with 1:10 left for a steal and the Bruins holding a one-point lead. But after the Bruins called a timeout, Jaquez missed a short jumper.
“I had a lot of great looks,” said Jaquez, who scored 13 points on five-for-18 shooting, “I just missed.”
The Wildcats missed their next shot but Tubelis snagged an offensive rebound and found Courtney Ramey for a three-pointer that pushed Arizona into a 60-58 lead with 18 seconds left. Cronin suggested that Ramey had pushed off on Will McClendon before the shot, one of two calls that irritated Cronin.
The other call came in the first half when Jaquez passed to a cutting Amari Bailey, who threw down a vicious, one-handed dunk over Arizona’s Pelle Larsson. The whistle blew. Bruins fans roared, presuming it was a chance for a three-point play.
Nope. The official motioned with his arm to signal that Bailey had pushed off. Offensive foul. Cronin and the Bruins fans were livid.
“An offensive foul called on a guy who had the best dunk of the season,” Cronin said incredulously.
It somehow got worse. On the Wildcats’ next possession, Larsson threw down his own one-handed dunk, prompting an Arizona fan sitting courtside to yell, “That’s how you do it!”
Bruised but not broken, the Bruins kept fighting back. They took a nine-point lead early in the second half before it looked like they might run out of magic. Shots stopped falling. Fouls piled up.
With freshman center Adem Bona watching after injuring his left shoulder Friday, the Bruins ran out of big men in the final minutes. Backup Mac Etienne fouled out with 9:35 left and Kenneth Nwuba followed with four minutes to go.
Tubelis scored 19 for the Wildcats (28-6), and Bailey had 19 to lead the Bruins.
This was supposed to be a chance to solve the debates, answer the questions, end any lingering doubts.
These teams had met twice this season, each winning once. The respective fan bases had made their cases for superiority. UCLA was the tougher, more complete team. Arizona possessed the bigger front line and a mightier offense.
The Bruins had won the Pac-12 title in a four-game runaway, thumping the Wildcats just last week. But any reasonable calculus of the Bruins had changed considerably over the last week.
Junior guard Jaylen Clark was out with a lower-leg injury. Bona, a shot-blocking menace, was transformed into a cheerleader by the shoulder soreness that’s not expected to keep him out past Saturday.
The Bruins withstood it all as part of a stirring Pac-12 tournament run that was the stuff of Disney, pulling away from Colorado before blitzing Oregon behind a Campbell barrage. But this challenge was on another level, like going from scaling the Santa Monica Mountains to Mount Everest.
UCLA made it most of the way but couldn’t reach the summit.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.
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