Arizona coach Sean Miller said he was encouraged by how his team played against UCLA on Saturday night. At least he was when he compared it Wednesday’s game against USC.
The result, however, was the same — a loss, this one a 74-69 setback.
Every time Arizona appeared to be getting back into the game against UCLA, the Bruins had an answer. Or the Wildcats just gave them one via a turnover.
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During his quick halftime television interview, Miller said that if Arizona could limit its giveaways, it would have a chance. The Cats cut their giveaways from nine to seven in the second half, but it was still too many against a team that largely controlled play at both ends of the court, scoring consistently and stifling Arizona’s offensive momentum.
UA has now gone 3-4 in the last seven games after being swept by UCLA in the regular-season series for the first time since 2008.
The Wildcats conclude the regular season next Saturday at home against Arizona Staet on Senior Day. Miller said that from here on out, it’s a “matter of building.”
“Right now, for us, it’s focusing on the great week and finishing our season on the right foot against our rival,” Miller said on his postgame radio show. “… We can kind of recharge and see what we can do in both tournaments.”
That would be the Pac-12 tournament, which begins in less than two weeks, and the NCAA tournament, which begins in less than three. Arizona will clearly have to play better than it has recently to make a run in either.
On Saturday, Arizona had 16 turnovers, 10 of them coming from senior forward Solomon Hill (five) and senior point guard Mark Lyons (five).
“Where they are in their careers, we don’t need them to turn the ball over 10 times,” Miller said. “I’m not pointing blame, but it’s tough to overcome.”
The Cats couldn’t overcome them, instead unraveling like a Christmas sweater. Heck, isn’t that the last time Arizona looked like a legitimate title contender? Since then — it’s no coincidence that Pac-12 play started shortly thereafter — Arizona has been consistently inconsistent and has an 11-6 conference record to prove it.
That mark has UA in fourth place in the conference and 23-6 overall. Just two weeks ago, the Wildcats were atop the conference and thinking about a No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament. Now, they’re thinking about just getting better and staying in the top four in the conference so as to avoid playing in the opening round of the Pac-12 tournament.
“I know 12-6 in the conference still gives us an opportunity to get that first-round bye,” Miller said. “Most importantly, we start playing for March and the highest seed we can possibly (get) in the tournament and to see if we can compete in the Pac-12 tournament.”
On Saturday, the second-half start was again pivotal in determining UA’s fate, as UCLA went on a 12-0 run that started about two minutes into the half to take a 52-38 lead with 15:26 left. The Cats recovered, though, to eventually cut it to five at 59-54 on a Jordin Mayes free throw.
Four minutes later, UCLA was back up by double digits at 69-58 on a Larry Drew II jumper. But behind two Kevin Parrom free throws and a Grant Jerrett 3-pointer, Arizona got within two possessions at 70-66.
UA eventually cut it to 72-69 with 24 seconds left on another Jerrett 3-pointer, but Lyons missed a shot with eight seconds left that was rebounded by UCLA freshman Shabazz Muhammad, who hit two free throws to put the game away.
Defense is still a concern for the Cats, although they played better at that end of the court against the Bruins than they had of late. UCLA shot 46.7 percent to Arizona’s 44.4 percent.
Muhammad had a game-high 18 points and Kyle Anderson had 17 for the Bruins, who moved into a first-place tie with idle Oregon at 12-4 in the Pac-12 and 22-7 overall.
“Our defense wasn’t able to answer the bell,” Miller said. “We’re not a good enough defensive team to win on the road.”
UCLA dominated at the point guard spot as well, with Drew II outperforming Lyons, who has struggled over the last couple of games. On Saturday night he went 5 for 15, including 1 for 5 from the 3-point line, to finish with 13 points. On Thursday, he was 1 for 9 and 0 for 5. And, he couldn’t stop Drew II, who had 14 points and nine assists.
“Larry Drew was just too much for us,” Miller said. “When he scores, it adds a different dimension to their team. I thought he was in control of the game from start to finish.”
The Wildcats didn’t help themselves in the first half, missing a number of easy shots near the basket that prevented them from gaining any offensive momentum. UA trailed 40-36 at halftime.
Arizona’s only lead in the first half came on the first basket of game. After that, the score was tied only three times, with the last coming at 34-34.
Unlike Thursday, Arizona showed up to play, but it wasn’t quite enough.
“We did some good things on offense (and) and if we would have played at the level we (played) at (on Saturday) against USC, we would have split on this road trip,” Miller said. “Unfortunately, we weren’t at this same level against USC as we were tonight.”
Arizona did get some strong play from junior Jordin Mayes, who played 13 minutes and had eight points, and Jerrett, a freshman who kept Arizona in the game late with his two 3-pointers in the final 98 seconds. He hit UA’s final basket with 1:11 left, getting the Cats to within one possession at 72-69.
“Grant Jerrett down the stretch deserves a lot of credit,” Miller said. “(He showed) a lot of poise for a freshman. He’s showing it. He did a great job.”
Miller said Mayes’ play “couldn’t have happened at a better time,” as UA has been in need of a spark from its bench and benefits from his defensive ability.
“To watch him play with confidence and contribute like he did … he played with poise,” Miller said.