Thanks mostly to a scintillating run early in the first half and a strong performance from Shabazz Muhammad, the UCLA Bruins recorded a minor upset on Thursday night, defeating the No. 6 Arizona Wildcats, 84-73 at the McKale Center.
Though the game turned out to be hard-fought and competitive, it looked anything but in the opening minutes.
The Bruins came out of the gate and were seemingly draining every shot they put up early on. Ben Howland's squad started the contest on a 19-3 run thanks to some ascendant play from Muhammad. The all-everything freshman had seven of UCLA's first 19 points and continued his great play throughout the first 20 minutes.
Though some teams would collapse under the weight of the Bruins' early gut-punch, the Wildcats kept their composure and battled their way back into the contest. Following the initial surge, the first half mellowed out, playing much like the close game most expected heading into Thursday.
Arizona slowly but surely fought back, getting a critical nine points from Nick Johnson en route to closing the gap to 40-30 at halftime. Outside of Johnson, the Wildcats can thank second-chance opportunities for keeping them in the game. They outscored UCLA 11-2 on those second chances in the first half, which undoubtedly helped atone for a 23 percent shooting rate on first-chance shots.
After the teams took a quick siesta for the halftime break, they pretty much picked up right back where they left off. The Bruins' lead hit a peak of 14 points multiple times early in the second half, but they could never quite put the final nail in Arizona's coffin until late.
With his team down by 14 with a little less than 13 minutes remaining, Wildcats coach Sean Miller called a critical timeout that seemingly spurred a run. Johnson and Mark Lyons came out of that timeout running a two-man offense, scoring 10 straight Arizona points in a minute-and-a-half to close the gap to a 55-51 score.
Unfortunately for Arizona, the hole it dug early on was too deep. At multiple times throughout the final 20 minutes, the Wildcats would employ their press and bring the crowd to its feet with a quick run, only for UCLA to once again pull the rug out.
The Bruins eventually put their pesky rivals away with about two minutes remaining, knocking down critical free throws as Arizona shots clanked off the rim.
For the night, Muhammad was undoubtedly UCLA's top player. He finished with 23 points and matched Johnson for the game-high. Thursday's win could also not come at a better time for Howland's squad. After an extremely rocky start, the Bruins are now 16-4 on the season and are starting to find their form.
As for Arizona, Miller cannot be happy about giving up 84 points, but should take solace in his team's effort. Despite the loss, something tells me the Wildcats will be just fine in the long term.
ESPN's Numbers Never Lie Twitter feed noted that Thursday was UCLA's first win over a ranked team in nearly five years:
UCLA takes out No. 6 Arizona ... the first time they've defeated a ranked opponent on the road since Washington St in Feb. 2008.— Numbers Never Lie (@ESPN_Numbers) January 25, 2013
Despite the victory, not everyone involved with UCLA's program seemed pleased Thursday night. Former Bruins great Bill Walton called the game for ESPN, and Yahoo! Sports' Jeff Eisenberg notes that the legendary center isn't exactly the biggest fan of Howland:
If you drank for every Bill Walton jab at Howland, you'd have passed out 10 minutes ago.— Jeff Eisenberg (@JeffEisenberg) January 25, 2013
Since Mr. Walton himself was calling the action, it's only right to have a tweet from the parody account, Not Bill Walton. This time, the fake Walton was praising Shabazz Muhammad's great night:
Shabazz Muhammad is a star. And not just any star he is a luminous supergiant, a fiery mega sensation shining brightly in multiple galaxies!— Not Bill Walton (@NotBillWalton) January 25, 2013
Even in a loss, Nick Johnson's star status was further cemented against the Bruins. Fox Sports' Lindsey Thiry noted that his wasn't the first time Johnson has put Arizona on his back:
Arizona's Nick Johnson is one of the most exciting players to watch in college basketball. How many times has he put this team on his back?— Lindsey Thiry (@LindseyThiry) January 25, 2013
Brian Snow, also of Fox Sports, hypothesized that Miller will spend much of his night watching film after the Wildcats' loss.
Over/under on Sean Miller leaving the arena is 3:00 a.m. Arizona time. Over/under on how many times he watches this film tonight is five— Brian Snow (@BSnowScout) January 25, 2013
If that's the case, Miller should expect to see Muhammad throughout his dreams on Thursday night.