Jordan Adams rose up with Pac-12 player of the year Nick Johnson undercutting his jump shot and smoothly sank the three-ball dagger that locked down UCLA's fourth conference tournament championship.
The Bruins (26-8, 12-6) hit four free throws in the final seconds to seal the win at 75-71 and upset regular-season Pac-12 champion and potential NCAA tournament No. 1 overall seed Arizona (30-4, 15-3).
Coach Steve Alford called Adam's number on an inbounds play after a timeout with 49 seconds remaining and the game tied at 68-68.
Tony Parker stood in a soft screen near the top of the key that Adams shuffled around to receive a pass from Kyle Anderson. When his shot, which traced a clean arc as he fell backward and slid across the floor, splashed through—Adam's first triple of the night—it completed a vengeance story at least as good as The Count of Monte Cristo.
Adams had broken a foot while contesting a three-point shot on the final play of last season's semifinal against Arizona. Same tournament, same building, but at the opposite end of the floor. He had missed a three-point attempt earlier in the season during UCLA's 79-75 loss to Arizona in Los Angeles, which was their only other meeting this season.
This year's play almost was a perfect mirror of last year's tournament. Then, Adams had defended a three-point shot that allowed the Bruins to advance to the championship game. This year, he buried the shot that won it and celebrated afterward beneath the shower of ticker tape in the MGM Grand in perfect health.
I Just want to thank GOD because a year ago I was carried out of that same arena in a wheelchair due to a broken foot! Now a year later 🏆🏆— Jordan Adams (@jordanadams1231) March 16, 2014
His injury had been a crippling emotional and physical blow to last year's squad, which lost the championship the next day to the Oregon Ducks. Minnesota soundly beat the undermanned Bruins in their first NCAA tournament game, and coach Ben Howland was fired quickly afterward.
The momentum of the Pac-12 regular-season championship, UCLA's 31st, had dissipated like a bullet fired into a tank of ballistics gel, and the fast tournament exit made the season feel like a failure.
This year, the Bruins head confidently toward the tournament with their sails at full belly after the best three-game stretch of the season in the conference tournament. They battered the league's hottest team Oregon 82-63 in the quarterfinals. Then they dismantled and crushed Stanford in the semifinal, 84-59, who had beaten them in Palo Alto several weeks earlier.
The championship game had been the best played and most exciting of the entire postseason. In the final 15 minutes, the game was tied or had the lead change 14 times before Adams put UCLA up for good.
Both teams, as skilled and athletic as any two squads in America, got up and down the floor in the first half, passing beautifully, making shot after shot from every section of the floor and sending home high-flying dunks and alley-oops to electrify the crowd of 12,916 inside the sold-out MGM Grand.
UCLA led 43-40 at the half on 65.2 percent shooting, while the Wildcats had made 50 percent of their shots. In its previous two contests, Arizona had allowed Utah to score 39 points and Colorado 43—for the entire game.
The Wildcats battled their way back from an early 14-3 deficit behind hot three-point shooting. Sophomore guard Gabe York scored nine points on 3-of-3 shooting in the first half. He cut UCLA's lead to 31-23 when he knocked down his third triple late in the half.
Arizona was 5-of-8 from deep in the first half, with freshman Aaron Gordon burying another timely deep ball to cut into the Bruins' lead.
They would cool off significantly in the second half, shooting 3-of-10 to finish at 44 percent, and York missed all of his second-half attempts. UCLA shot 3-of-11 from deep on the game for 27 percent, but Adams' shot late was the biggest of the game.
The Wildcats rode behind big pulls from star players Johnson, Gordon and Kaleb Tarczewski to stay close after the Bruins stretched their lead multiple times to 11 points. Gordon fed the 7' Tarczewski for multiple dunks and easy baskets in the low post and lobbed a monstrous alley-oop to the spectacular skywalking Johnson, one of college basketball's finest all-around players.
Johnson finished with 22 points on 9-of-20 shooting and five rebounds. Tarczewski had 12 points on 6-of-9 shooting and seven rebounds. Gordon got 11 on 4-of-12 and took down eight rebounds.
York's dead-eye shooting kept Arizona close in the first half in much the way Trevor Cooney had kept Syracuse in a slow game against Notre Dame earlier in the season. York scored only two points in the second half, though, and missed all four of his three-point attempts.
Arizona also faltered badly at the free-throw line, an Achilles' heel for the team all season. The Wildcats shot 6-of-16 from the charity stripe for 37.5 percent. On the year, they shot 65.5 percent for 313th nationally for a team that spent much of the season ranked No. 1.
The Bruins exploited an aggressive, rack-attacking mentality to get bunches of points. Using its slashing guards and wings, UCLA scored at and around the rim again and again. The Bruins sank 21 of 25 free throws for 84 percent, which made all the difference.
UCLA's three stars—Anderson, Adams and Norman Powell—put on a magnificent show for the discerning Las Vegas audience. Anderson, the tournament's MVP, was superlative, leading the team with 21 points on 5-of-12 shooting and 10-of-13 from the free-throw line. He collected 15 rebounds and added five assists, including the game-winner to Adams.
Powell—who played the best three games of his career during the tournament—had 15 points on 50 percent shooting to go with a steal, block and two assists.
Adams—the team's leading scorer and, along with Anderson, a "gamer" of the first order—had 19 points, four steals and four assists to complement the dagger at the game's biggest moment.
Bruins' fifth-year seniors David and Travis Wear contributed just enough statistically, and more than enough in emotional intensity, to see the team through the fray. A sequence late in the second half with Adams and Travis Wear embodied the intensity and importance of this game for the brothers who are playing their final games in UCLA blue and gold. It has made the short list for the play of the season.
With 2:36 left in the game, Adams poked the ball away from Johnson near the sideline, and it went bouncing down to the far end of the floor. Both Johnson and Adams dove at it, knocking it farther and faster away.
Travis lit out after it like a head hunter. He dove headlong at full speed, sliding underneath Gordon and 18 feet across the floor at an angle from just outside the free-throw line to the baseline. He hugged the ball, quickly calling a timeout and earning UCLA a critical extra possession.
The game felt like a throwback to college basketball's most exciting days of the early and middle 1990s. It was a fast, clean run from end to end and back again. It was played with the refined individual skill of soon-to-be-professionals and full of the artistry of shot making and the powerful athleticism of soaring slams from a few of the game's most elite athletes.
Both teams tightened up late in the contest, not wanting to make the critical mistake in the championship round as the clock ticked toward zero, but the playmaking continued to the final horn with UCLA finishing one up on Arizona.
Arizona claimed the regular-season championship, ahead of second-place UCLA after the Bruins faltered on the road late to inferior teams. But in their second meeting, the Bruins got the better of the champs and returned to Westwood, Calif. with the league's trophy.
Good, potentially great things, would seem to lie ahead for both teams in the greatest sporting event in America—the NCAA tournament—which is set to tip off Thursday afternoon in arenas across the country.