LAS VEGAS (AP) — Arizona made shots, threw weak passes and watched UCLA build what seemed like an insurmountable lead. Then the Wildcats found a team that few teams have, maybe no other team has.
They are now Pac-12 champions, a likely No. 1 seed on Draft Sunday and among the favorites to win the national championship.
Not bad for a team in its first season under a new coach.
Bennedict Mathurin scored 27 points and No. 2 Arizona used a massive second-half run to beat No. 13 UCLA 84-76 on Saturday night, winning the Pac-12 Tournament in coach Tommy Lloyd’s first season.
“These games are long and we’re a racing team,” Lloyd said. “I always say, ‘Hold on, hold on, we could be a possession or two away from a run.’ We did a good job holding on.”
The Wildcats and Bruins put on a headline show in Las Vegas worthy of the conference’s top two seeds, exchanging athletic plays and big runs in the first full-capacity Pac-12 Tournament in three years.
The top-seeded Wildcats (31-4) played their second straight game without point guard Kerr Kriisa because of a sprained right ankle suffered in the quarterfinals against Stanford. His replacement, Justin Kier, was limited to 13 minutes due to foul trouble, further reducing Arizona’s depth.
Arizona worked without Kriisa and Kier, falling into a 12-point hole early in the second half before revving up one of the best offenses in the nation. The Wildcats put together a 22-5 run to lead 63-58 and pump up the crowd at North McKale Center (T-Mobile Arena).
Arizona kept up its offensive showdown from the Strip to sweep the regular season and Pac-12 tournament titles for the seventh time. It was the Wildcats’ eighth Pac-12 Tournament title, their first since 2018.
“When we’re down 10 or up 20, we have the same mentality of playing hard until there’s no more time on the clock,” Mathurin said after enjoying one of the celebratory cupcakes at a table outside Arizona’s locker room.
The second-seeded Bruins (25-7) shut down Arizona for long stretches and appeared headed for a repeat of their lopsided win at Westwood in January.
UCLA went into a long offensive funk after leading 53-41, setting off the Wildcats’ fast-playing offense and their raucous fans. The Bruins tried to hit back, but the Wildcats hit back each time.
UCLA closed within 80-76 in the final minute, but Christian Koloko and Oumar Ballo each had three blocked shots in the final 38 seconds. Ballo blocked six total shots, Koloko four and Arizona tied the tournament record with 11.
Jules Bernard had 19 points and Jaime Jaquez Jr. 18 to lead the Bruins.
“I thought Arizona was the toughest team down the stretch. That’s where the game was decided,” UCLA coach Mick Cronin said. “They were more physical. Our defense left a lot to be desired, to say the least.”
Sin City became Hoops City after two years of pandemic restrictions, with five conference tournaments played over nine days. The Pac-12 finale topped the marquee just steps from The Strip, the top two teams in the conference during the regular season.
The Bruins and Wildcats put on a high-level show in the first half, when no fouls were called.
The Wildcats were called 12 times and Kier was limited to eight minutes after committing three fouls. The Bruins were called for nine fouls, including two each from three players.
UCLA led 40-35 at halftime after Juzang hit a 3-pointer at the buzzer.
“I don’t know if it was being called tight, that’s how those games go,” Lloyd said. “We just had to hang in there.”
The hits kept coming.
Kier committed his fourth foul 62 seconds into the second period and Koloko was flagrantly fouled 1 with an elbow to the head from Bernard.
Bernard made both free throws and Tyger Campbell hit a jumper to cap a 10-2 run that put UCLA up 50-39.
UCLA big man Cody Riley then went to the bench on his fourth foul. Arizona capitalized on his big run and kept it rolling, shooting 16-for-24 in the second half.
“It may have been a snowball effect,” Bernard said. “We started the middle with two back doors, one for me and one for someone else. But regardless, I feel like just his energy at both ends was better than ours.”
Arizona has that effect.
UCLA’s defense was superb at first, but faltered once Arizona got going. The Bruins are still good enough to make noise again in the NCAA Tournament.
Arizona, after a slow start, showed off the team that few teams can match. That is why they are among the favorites to win the national title.
UNTIL NEXT TIME
UCLA: Will likely remain a top seed in the NCAA Tournament
Arizona: Should be the No. 1 seed on Selection Sunday.
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