UCLA didn’t come here just to give it a good try.
Their best defenseman at home, their best big man watching in a sweatsuit, the Bruins didn’t give up Saturday night at T-Mobile Arena while severely undermanned in the Pac-12 Tournament Championship.
They finally ran out of counter-attacks.
The wild game came down to a crazy scramble at the end. Arizona’s Azuolas Tubelis gave his team a two-point lead by making the first of two free throws with 5.8 seconds left before missing the second.
Jaime Jaquez Jr. from UCLA, grabbed the rebound and frantically dribbled down the court before passing freshman guard Dylan Andrews on the wing. Andrews went up for a three-pointer and the shot of a lifetime.
The ball flew off the rim, preserving the second-seeded Wildcats’ 61-59 victory over the top-seeded Bruins.
“Wide open shot to win,” UCLA coach Mick Cronin said afterward. “We will take it. It is, as it is. Rest, get ready for the real tournament.”
Arizona players stuck around to celebrate their second straight title game victory over UCLA (29-5) as the Bruins pondered where they might be seeded in the NCAA Tournament.
Even without a player, the Bruins had every chance to pull this off.
Given a chance to tie the game with 6.8 seconds left, Bruins point guard Tyger Campbell, the 84.9% free throw shooter who has been so nimble all week, missed the second of two free throws, the ball rolling around the rim before flew out. Cronin said Campbell was unnecessarily angry with himself afterward.
“I’d put my career on the line,” Cronin said, “with Tyger on the line.”
Tubelis grabbed the rebound and was immediately fouled to start the late game sequence.
Another opportunity was lost for UCLA after Jaquez knocked the ball away from Tubelis with 1:10 left for a steal, giving the Bruins a one-point lead. But after the Bruins called a timeout, Jaquez missed a short jumper.
“I thought I looked really good,” said Jaquez, who scored 13 points on 5-for-18 shooting, “I just missed.”
The Wildcats missed their next shot, but Tubelis grabbed an offensive rebound and found Courtney Ramey for a 3-pointer that put Arizona ahead 60-58 with 18 seconds left. Cronin suggested Ramey shoved Will McClendon before the snap, which was one of two calls that irked the coach.
“My score was an uncalled offensive foul, they hit a three,” said Cronin, who also bemoaned his team’s defensive mistakes and giving up seven offensive rebounds in the second half.
The other call that bothered Cronin came in the first half when Jaquez passed to the sharp-shooting Amari Bailey, who viciously one-handedly nailed Arizona’s Pelle Larsson. A whistle blew. Bruins fans roared, assuming it was a three-point play opportunity.
Not. The referee showed with his hand that Bailey (19 points) pushed away. Attack error. Cronin and Bruins fans were furious.
“An offensive foul was called on the guy who had the best dunk of the season,” Cronin said in disbelief.
It somehow got worse. On the Wildcats’ next possession, Larsson pulled off a one-handed dunk of his own, prompting an Arizona fan sitting courtside to shout, “That’s how it’s done!”
Battered but not broken, the Bruins fought back. They jumped out to a nine-point lead early in the second half before it looked like the magic would run out. The shots stopped falling. Violations were piling up.
With freshman center Adem Bono out after injuring his left shoulder on Friday, the Bruins ran out of bigs in the final minutes. Substitute Mac Etienne fouled out with 9:35 left, followed by Kenneth Nwuba with four minutes remaining.
Tubelis scored 19 points and grabbed 14 rebounds for the Wildcats (28-6), who ended the Bruins’ 12-game winning streak. Afterward, an Associated Press reporter told Cronin that an Arizona fan got in the face of his 81-year-old father, Hep, after the game. Mick Cronin and his players immediately stood up and left the post-match press conference.
UCLA radio stations reported on air that a family of Arizona fans caused a disturbance and security was called to calm the situation and ask the fans to leave the area. Bruins athletic director Martin Jarmond told The Times that he has been in contact with Pac-12 officials regarding the incident.
This was supposed to be an opportunity to resolve debates, to answer questions, to end any lingering doubts.
These two teams met twice before this season, each winning once. Respective fan bases have made their case for superiority. UCLA was a tougher, more complete team. Arizona had a bigger front line and a more powerful offense.
The Bruins clinched the Pac-12 regular season title last week in a four-game sweep of the Wildcats, and now the teams were meeting again.
Any reasonable calculation on the Bruins has changed significantly over the past week. Images of the Bruins running to celebrate with their fellow students inside Pauley Pavilion were replaced by images of UCLA fans crossing their fingers and holding their breath over the two stars that hung like a dark cloud over Arizona’s final showdown.
Junior guard Jaylen Clark was sidelined with a calf injury. Bona, a shot-blocking threat, turned into a cheerleader because of shoulder soreness that wasn’t expected to keep him out last Saturday.
The Bruins endured it all in a thrilling run that was the stuff of Disney this week, pulling away from Colorado before torching Oregon behind a barrage of Campbell fire. But this challenge was on a whole other level, like going from the Santa Monica Mountains to Mount Everest.
UCLA pushed most of the way. It just couldn’t get to the top.