LOS ANGELES — New year. New players. New opposing coach.
It didn’t matter. No. 1 Arizona could not help but reminisce on last year when preparing for its first meeting with UCLA this season, and the Wildcats were determined to settle an old score.
Although it was more difficult that it first appeared, Nick Johnson and the Wildcats on Thursday put behind them the disappointment of three 2012-13 losses to UCLA and did down the stretch what good teams do in a 79-75 victory at Pauley Pavilion.
"Everybody needs a chip on their shoulder, and I think tonight our guys came in ready to battle," Arizona coach Sean Miller said.
The chip was not hard to spot. UCLA played perhaps its best game of last season in an 84-73 in McKale Center last January, when the Wildcats were 16-1 and ranked No. 6 in the nation. UCLA in effect won the Pac-12 regular season title with its 74-69 victory over the Wildcats in Pauley on March 2, and completed the season sweep with a 66-64 victory in the Pac-12 tournament, a game most memorable for the unwarranted technical foul called on Miller, starting a brouhaha that led to the "resignation" of conference supervisor of officials Ed Rush.
"We lost to UCLA three times last year, and none of us forgot that," sophomore Gabe York said. "Coach said this is not going to be an easy game, but losing to them three times last year definitely made us hyped for the game."
Toughened by earlier true road victories at San Diego State and Michigan and a neutral-site victory over Duke, the Wildcats did not let the Bruins’ late 15-1 run — UCLA led 70-69 with 1:44 remaining — do irreparable damage.
Arizona (16-0, 3-0) tied the 1931-32 team for the best start in school history, and it’s something Miller treasures.
"We know 16-0 is not easy to do, and I think we’ll have a lot of pride in the fact we’ve been able to do it," Miller said. "And yet it’s up to us to continue to forge forward and not worry too much about that. It’s so much about the next game."
This game appeared in control when Johnson, who had a game-high 22 points, sliced through the lane for a one-handed dunk on a feed from Rondae Hollis-Jefferson for a 68-55 lead with 6:13 remaining. It capped a 20-9 Arizona run.
In this series, of course, neither team is wired to submit easily. The Bruins scored the next 13 points to tie the game. UCLA coach Steve Alford’s son, Bryce, hit a 3-pointer and two free throws during the run, and Jordan Adams capped it with a 3-pointer from the left wing that tied the game at 68.
Arizona fell behind when Alford made two free throws after one by Brandon Ashley, but the Wildcats turned to their man for all occasions, Johnson, on the next possession. As Alford was shooting his free throws, Miller looked at Johnson and asked him what play he would like to run. Johnson said he wanted to take the ball at Alford, a freshman, and the play worked when Alford when for a steal and Johnson received a friendly roll on a 14-footer in the lane for a 71-70 lead.
"You work so hard for that moment, and the team is trusting you to make that shot," Johnson said. "With all what we went through last year, we couldn’t give up."
Nick Johnson and the No. 1 Wildcats survived UCLA on Thursday to stay unbeaten. FULL STORY >>
Freshman Aaron Gordon, who missed the front end of a one-and-one during UCLA’s big run, made two free throws after Alford lost the ball on the Bruins’ next possession. Adams missed a 3 on the Bruins’ next trip, and that was the last time UCLA had the ball with a chance to tie.
In addition to his 22 points, Johnson defended Adams for the most part and held him to 4-of-15 shooting from the field.
York, a sophomore from suburban Los Angeles, had 12 points on three 3s, had two assists in 18 minutes and was especially potent when UCLA went to a zone five minutes into the game in an attempt to combat the Wildcats’ size advantage. York and Johnson sank a pair of 3s in the final 6:01 of the first half to help Arizona to a 42-38 halftime lead.
"I love that," York said.
"Coach knows when the zone happens, he wants to put me in the game. I haven’t been shooting the ball very well the last couple of games, but tonight the ball went in."
Arizona outrebounded its opponent for the 16th straight time, holding a 37-36 edge Thursday as Kaleb Tarczewski led the Wildcats with eight and point guard T.J. McConnell had seven. UCLA kept the margin close with 16 offensive rebounds, showing a side of its game it had not earlier in the season.
40.0 — UCLA shooting’s percentage from the field. The Bruins entered the game shooting 52.7 percent.
— The Wildcats pounded the ball inside to the 7-footer Tarczewski early and he scored their first five points and nine of their first 22. Arizona attacked inside so well it forced UCLA into a 2-3 zone the Bruins played most of the rest of the way.
— Alert the officials — Aaron Gordon’s wingspan is longer than that of the normal defender. Gordon was in foul trouble and finished with four, but two were called when he appeared to block shots with his reach, not his body.
— UCLA forward Kyle Anderson entered the game averaging 15.1 points, 8.9 rebounds and 6.6 assists a game, the only Division I player averaging at least 15/8/6. He finished with 16, 11 and six.
— Flea, the bass player for the Red Hot Chili Peppers, played a version of the national anthem before the game.
— Los Angeles Clippers head coach Doc Rivers attended the game and received a mixed response when shown on the video board.
UCLA is 10-20 against AP No. 1 teams, losing to Kansas 73-61 on Dec. 6, 2009, in its last such game. It was the only one since the 2004-05 season. The Bruins’ last victory over a No. 1 team was against Arizona, a 96-89 victory in the 2003 Pac-10 tournament.