Undefeated No. 1 Arizona bends, doesn’t break against pesky UCLA
The ball moved to the top of the key, then down to the low post. After a big man cut through the lane to cut a swath of space, Nick Johnson followed. What followed that was Arizona’s star (or one of them) and Player of the Year candidate taking a pass from the low post in stride and spiking the ball through the rim with enough force to crater the Pauley Pavilion floor on the other end.
From the not-insignificant pockets of the place occupied by Wildcats faithful, U-OF-A chants filled the building. The nation’s No. 1 team had a double-digit road lead late in the second half. Matching the best start in program history — reaching more wins without a loss than any other Arizona team had since before the New Deal — seemed assured. So did the Wildcats. And this was their problem, the thing a championship team cannot do, unless of course it then does the things a championship team does to fix it.
A 79-75 win over UCLA made it a 16-0 start, Arizona’s best as a program since 1932. There’s no hulking, impregnable team anywhere in the country and winning on the road will be difficult at times no matter what. There’s also no real good excuse for the Wildcats making it harder on themselves – relative youth, maybe, but it is halfway through a season – even with failsafe defense in place to choke off the Bruins’ chances to extend a miniscule late lead. Arizona will lose at some point, but avoiding death by indifference is too easy, to be flirting with it still.
So consider the nits picked. Arizona shot 53.8-percent, held UCLA to 40-percent and actually outrebounded the Bruins 37-36. When Johnson flushed home that percussive dunk with a little more than six minutes left, Arizona had a 13-point lead. Then came 13 straight UCLA points as part of a 15-1 run that dropped the Wildcats behind by one with 104 seconds to go. Everything about the time between the big lead and the big problem was lax, not exactly careless but not concentrated either, a home-team run perhaps predictable but seemingly avoidable.
Avoidable, because of what came next. The next three UCLA possessions: Turnover, miss and defensive close-out by getting fouled going for the rebound, and another turnover, with Aaron Gordon’s deft footwork sliding him in front of primo Bruins creator Kyle Anderson to force a travel.
By the time T.J. McConnell hit two free throws at the other end after the Anderson walk, Arizona had a six-point lead. It was unswerving defensive effort at the precise moment the Wildcats needed it, the sort of sequence that underscores their increasingly inflexible grip on the No. 1 overall seed for the NCAA tournament. They needed it, but they also could have used it five minutes earlier. They had it at their disposal, this wherewithal to dispose of the Bruins much sooner.
Ultimately, another quality victory was added to the pile. UCLA scored more on Arizona’s normally asphyxiating defense than any other team so far and the 17 turnovers were a season-worst. But no harm, no scowl, no telling when that first defeat might even come. Also, though, no excuse for relaxing too soon anymore.
“We’re undefeated,” Johnson told reporters after the game, “and we’ll keep it like that if we can keep churning out wins and not worry about who our opponent is or how special it is, and just play our game.”