And, then, the UCLA Bruins took over sole possession of first place in the Pac-12.
Sure, that could change next week when Oregon play Cal but, until then, the Bruins have a half game lead over the Ducks.
It certainly wasn’t easy to get past the Arizona Wildcats tonight, yet UCLA keeps finding ways to win.
How hard was it? Well, consider that Arizona led the game for more than 34 minutes and that UCLA led for less than three and a half minutes. But, the Bruins led when it counts — when the scoreboard show “00:00” on the second half clock.
Of course, tonight was Senior Night and the Bruins’ two seniors, Prince Ali and Alex Olesinski were given the start by Coach Cronin. That was short-lived, however, as they were both subbed for before either team had scored.
It was a rough start for both teams. The first bucket didn’t come until Arizona’s Zeke Nnaji scored on a layup with 18:07 to go in the half. At the under-16 media timeout, UCLA still hadn’t scored and U of A led, 5-0. That timeout led Coach Cronin to send Jake Kyman into the game and he immediately made an impact by cutting the lead to 5-3. It was part of a 7-1 run by the Bruins that saw UCLA take their first lead, 8-7, with 12:50 left in the half.
But 23 seconds later, Arizona retook the lead and, soon, the Wildcats had opened their lead to nine points, their biggest lead of the game, due to a 12-2 run over then next four minutes.
The defensive play of the half came from Cody Riley with seven minutes to go. That’s when Riley blocked a Nico Mannion layup which Arizona coach Sean Miller didn’t like. The refs hit Miller with a technical for his whining, but Chris Smith was only able to make one of the two subsequent free throws to cut Arizona lead to 20-14.
With a little more than five minutes left in the first half and Arizona leading 24-17, Riley cut the Cats lead to five and got the Bruins started on a 10-0 run that saw UCLA retake the lead with 3:48 left in the half. But Arizona ended the half with a 9-0 run of their own and they took a 33-27 lead into the locker room at the break.
When the second half began, the Wildcats quickly scored on a jumper and subsequent free throw by Mannion. For Arizona fans, it was all downhill from there as the Cats were unable to stretch their lead into double digits.
In fact, over the next two and a half minutes, the Bruins went on an 8-0 run to cut the Arizona lead to 38-37. Over the rest of the game, Arizona wouldn’t lead by more than six points as the Bruin defense kept UCLA in the game.
With 12:28 left in the game, the officials hit Sean Miller with his second technical of the game and the Pauley Faithful serenaded Miller with “Na Na Hey Hey Goodbye” as he left the court for the night. This time, Chris Smith hit both free throws which cut the lead back to just one for Arizona, 47-46, but the Cats had it back up to six by the media timeout with 10:59 left.
UCLA rallied and scored five consecutive points to cut the lead back to one again, this time with 8:07 left. Over the next three-plus minutes, the Bruin defense was able to hold Arizona scoreless. That was critical because the Bruin offense still wasn’t able to re-take the lead.
With 4:49 to go, Former UC Irvine Anteater Max Hazzard, grandson of Bruin legend Walt Hazzard, put the Wildcats up by four and, a minute later, the lead was still four.
Then, the Bruin defense shut the door for the night. UCLA held Arizona scoreless until there were just two seconds left. Meanwhile, Smith scored five points during a Bruin 10-0 run that sealed the win and completed the season sweep of the Wildcats.
Tonight’s win means that UCLA can guarantee themselves at least a share of the Pac-12 title next Saturday at the Galen Center when they close out the season against the crosstown rival Southern Cal Trojans. It also means that the Bruins, who were picked to finish eighth in the conference, have secured a first round bye for the Pac-12 Tournament.
The fun ride continues....