Not even a trip to arguably the most famous building in college basketball could stop the Arizona Wildcats from matching their best start in school history.
Nick Johnson scored a game-high 22 points, including 12 in the second half, as the top-ranked Wildcats held on against the hard-charging UCLA Bruins to score a 79-75 victory at Pauley Pavilion on Thursday.
Ahead only four at the half, Arizona spent most of the second half showing why it has sat atop the Associated Press ranking for more than a month. The Wildcats worked early to push their lead to double digits, stretching it all the way to 13 points with just over five minutes remaining and seemingly coasting their way toward victory.
That is, until a torrid UCLA run nearly shook the college basketball landscape to its core.
Down 68-55, a Kyle Anderson jumper with 5:15 remaining in the contest started a 15-1 run that gave UCLA a one-point advantage—its first since before the midway point of the first half. The Bruins took advantage of uncharacteristic miscues from the Wildcats, forcing fouls and turnovers while corralling rebounds off missed Arizona free throws.
“We missed a couple front-ends of the one-and-ones and missed some free throws, but we really came back and made them when they counted,” Wildcats head coach Sean Miller said in an ESPN post-game interview. “Sometimes you miss a couple it becomes contagious.”
Two Bryce Alford free throws gave the Bruins a 70-69 lead with 1:44 remaining, leaving Miller shell-shocked on the bench. But, like good veteran teams do, Arizona battled back when facing adversity to hold off its upset-minded opponents.
A Johnson jumper on the Wildcats' subsequent possession gave them back the lead, and they took advantage of being in the double bonus to hold on to the lead.
“We don’t break,” Miller said to ESPN. “It’s not that it’s always pretty, but I think we have a resilience about our team and a togetherness that, when it really starts going the wrong way, we can fight back.”
The victory brings Arizona to 16-0 on the season, matching the 1931-32 team for the best start in school history. Miller's squad is off to a 3-0 start in the Pac-12 and already boasts road victories over UCLA, Michigan and San Diego State this season.
Still, UCLA's torrid comeback is just the latest evidence that this team is not invulnerable. The Wildcats needed a stellar second half to pull away from Washington at home last week, and each of their last two games have seen cracks in an elite defense. UCLA's 75 points were more than 20 greater than the average Arizona opponent coming into Thursday night.
Running a high-octane offense predicated on quick shots, the Bruins weren't perfect by any stretch, but could provide a blueprint for future opponents. They shot 40 percent from the floor, which is more in line with expectations, but got some spectacular individual performances that glossed over the rough patches.
Guard Kyle Anderson scored a team-high 16 points, grabbed 11 rebounds and dished six assists in an all-around stellar night. Anderson, a sophomore, led the Bruins out on the open floor and even started some fast breaks himself with his three steals and two blocks. His backcourt mate Jordan Adams added in 12 points, but shot 4-of-15 from the floor and had a rough time against Arizona's perimeter athletes.
Much of UCLA's second-half run was thanks to Anderson and the Bruins' bench, particularly guards Zach LaVine and Bryce Alford. LaVine (nine points) hit a clutch three-pointer with 17 seconds remaining to bring the Bruins to down 77-75. Alford, the son of head coach Steve Alford, hit two of the team's four three-pointers and hit all six of his free throws en route to a 12-point night.
The Bruins forced nearly twice as many turnovers (17 for Arizona, nine for UCLA) and stuck around on the boards despite being at a size disadvantage.
Freshman forward Aaron Gordon had a nondescript 10 points and six rebounds, at times disappearing for long stretches. Gordon's struggles were atoned for by a 16-point, eight-rebound effort on 6-of-6 shooting by center Kaleb Tarczewski, but it was Johnson's shot-making and point guard T.J. McConnell's distribution that helped save the day.
The victory is Arizona's first in its last four tries against the Pac-12 rival. Because of conference scheduling, this is the only meeting between the Bruins and Wildcats this season. At least they made it a memorable one.
|F Brandon Ashley||C|
|F Aaron Gordon||C+|
|C Kaleb Tarczewski||A-|
|G T.J. McConnell||B+|
|G Nick Johnson||A|
|Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, F||C|
|Jordin Mayes, G||C-|
|Gabe York, G||B-|
|F David Wear||C-|
|F Travis Wear||C-|
|G Norman Powell||C|
|G Jordan Adams||B|
|G Kyle Anderson||B+|
|F Tony Parker||B|
|G Zach LaVine||C|
|G Bryce Alford||B-|
Players of the Game: Nick Johnson (G, Arizona), Kyle Anderson (G, UCLA)
Much of the national praise surrounding Johnson is tied to his offensive prowess, and rightfully so. Johnson showed his explosiveness in spades Thursday despite a slow start, hitting a series of difficult shots and even banking in a three-pointer in the second half.
That said, Johnson's defense was arguably just as stellar. He and McConnell have the athleticism and smarts to switch on UCLA screens and other actions early in the shot clock, helping directly lead to Jordan Adams and Kyle Anderson struggling from the field. The Bruins guards shot 10-of-30 from the field to score their 28 points.
Of course, Johnson is a gunner first—nothing on the defensive end can change that. Johnson went scoreless in the first 10 minutes before going off late for 10 first-half points and carried the offense at certain points. On a night where Aaron Gordon came in and out of the offense, Johnson had no trouble taking the star reins.
On the other side, Anderson is sure fun to watch even when he's not shooting well. Perhaps the most unorthodox primary ball-handler in the country, he has a future in the NBA as a dynamic playmaker who does almost everything well offensively. His vision and rebounding for his position are elite, and he would have had more than six assists had his teammates knocked down shots. The 45 scouts in attendance were very likely impressed with the performance (via Marc J. Spears of Yahoo! Sports):
There are 45 NBA credentialed personnel at the UCLA-Arizona game tonight. Several GMs in attendance as well like Mitch Kupchak, Neil Olshey.— Marc J. Spears (@SpearsNBAYahoo) January 10, 2014
Credit the Arizona defense for its disruption, but Anderson is the type of talent who, even in a non-elite performance, somehow fills up the stat sheet.
UCLA continues its early season intraconference homestand on Sunday, but the schedule doesn't get much easier. The Bruins host a very solid Arizona State team. Meanwhile, Arizona gets to continue its extended Los Angeles stay by visiting a scuffling USC squad Sunday.
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