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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

Column: Comeback ‘Cats finally beat Bruins in Las Vegas

Arizona+forward+Stanley+Johnson+%285%29+goes+up+to+the+basket+to+make+a+shot+during+Arizonas+70-64+win+against+UCLA+in+the+semi-finals+of+the+Pac-12+Tournament+in+the+MGM+Grand+Garden+Arena+in+Las+Vegas%2C+Nev.+on+Friday+night.
Tyler Baker

Arizona forward Stanley Johnson (5) goes up to the basket to make a shot during Arizona’s 70-64 win against UCLA in the semi-finals of the Pac-12 Tournament in the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas, Nev. on Friday night.

LAS VEGAS — After winning the Pac-12 championship by three games with a roster stocked with all-conference selections, Arizona men’s basketball wouldn’t seem like a scrappy team, but they fought like Wildcats to earn a spot in the Pac-12 Tournament championship game.

The top seeded Wildcats (30-3) came back to beat fourth seeded UCLA on Friday night, 70-64.

“These players and their resiliency ― and I thought tonight, in one-game type of setting ― really I thought represented kind of who we’ve been really from start to finish,” Arizona coach Sean Miller said. “As far back as our Maui championship, our Gonzaga home game, and all the way through our conference season.”

The win came against UCLA, the one consistent thorn in the Wildcats’ side. The Bruins have knocked the UA out of the Pac-12 Tournament each of the last two seasons.

Arizona point guard T.J. McConnell agreed that getting past UCLA was like clearing a mental hurdle.

“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 more.”

While Arizona beat UCLA by 10 during the regular season and the Bruins were just a four-seed that looks NIT bound, it looked like they had the Wildcats dead and buried.

With 12:07 left in the game, UCLA took that seven-point lead. UA called a timeout, but they were struggling mightily on offense and couldn’t stop the Bruins on defense.

“Actually, I had a sense of terror, like, ‘Right now the ball is in their court, they’re in the driver’s seat,’ and we’re trying to come back and win,” Arizona forward Stanley Johnson said. “Obviously we’re supposed to win the game, we’re ranked higher than them, but that didn’t matter.”

Hope seemed lost, but then the Wildcats went on a 15-0 run, holding the Bruins scoreless for about 5:20.

“We went on a run, and our fans were behind us,” McConnell said. “You could say last year we didn’t get over that hump, but today we did.”

UCLA came back to make the game close at the end. Arizona still only finished the game shooting 40 percent; center Kaleb Tarczewski played terribly until fouling out; the Bruins scored 12 more points in the paint than the Wildcats and McConnell had five turnovers, but the UA fought back when most teams would have folded.

UCLA desperately needed the win to make the NCAA tournament, but the Wildcats played like the team in a must win spot in the final 12 minutes. The Bruins fought back to make it a game late, but Arizona just played better.

Combining a refuse to lose mentality with their stout defense makes the Wildcats a tough out in March, even if a zone defense makes scoring hard to come by.

“UCLA played their heart out. I thought even late in the game they needed to make some really tough big shots and yet they did, giving themselves a chance,” Miller said. “But it’s our team’s resiliency that allows you sometimes to have not only a win in a game like this, but also a special season like we’ve had to this point.”

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Follow James Kelley on Twitter.

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