Pac-12 Final takeaways: Arizona edges UCLA late to claim title

Pac-12 Final takeaways: Arizona edges UCLA late to claim title

Updated Mar. 12, 2023 3:21 a.m. ET

LAS VEGAS – The classic home white and bold powder blue font for UCLA looked resplendent clashing with the navy and red trim of Arizona for a Pac-12 final that seemed a fitting conclusion for the elite level each side played at this season.

The contest even lived up to the hefty heavyweight billing it had coming in, featuring a remarkable 17 lead changes before the second-seeded Wildcats edged the Bruins 61-59 in the dying embers to capture the conference tournament for the second consecutive year.

That's not to say it was the crispest of games to start off. 

Both sides began the game a combined 2-of-16 from the field in the first six minutes and committed five turnovers as well. But like a deck being swapped from one of the many blackjack tables around the Strip, the luck changed and both teams began hitting haymakers.


"Knock down, drag out and we had a feeling it was going to be like that. So much respect for the UCLA program ," said UA head coach Tommy Lloyd, who remained undefeated in the event since taking over the program two years ago and pushed his record to 61-10 overall. "Super proud of our guys. I had a feeling we were going to win – that doesn’t matter – but I was watching some other games on TV today and there were a few blowouts. We didn’t even think that because there was no chance this game was going to be a blowout."

UCLA even keeping it close spoke to the grit and competitiveness of a veteran laden squad that was without two key starters. Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year Jaylen Clark is reportedly out for the year after a lower leg injury suffered in the team's regular-season finale win over Arizona a week ago while conference Freshman of the Year Adem Bona was confined to street clothes after injuring his left shoulder in the semifinal against Oregon on Friday.

"We always play with toughness," head coach Mick Cronin said. "We made too many defensive mistakes and gave up too many rebounds in the second half. But that's how we do things. We compete, it's five-on-five and we don't accept that somebody was out so you're supposed to lose."

Bona's primary replacement, redshirt senior Kenneth Nwuba – dealing with nagging injuries himself – notched two offensive rebounds and took a charge early on to set the tone down low. Freshman Mac Etienne chipped in with seven rebounds in 16 minutes as both fouled out with over four minutes to go.

Their defense when on the court was otherwise particularly appreciated, holding Wildcats big man Oumar Ballo to just two points at halftime (he finished with 13) and rendering him more of a non-factor than expected. It didn't help that the Gonzaga transfer also was dealing with injuries to both of his heavily taped hands.

Guard Kerr Kriisa did what he could with a banged-up shoulder as well but wasn't quite as effective as he was in the early January win over UCLA back in Tucson. The junior from Estonia knocked down a key 3 down the stretch but finished with just six points and zero assists before fouling out with 1:49 to go.

Fellow guard Courtney Ramey hit just one shot all night but saved the best for last, knocking down a 3-pointer with 18 seconds left to retake the lead for good and allow him to backpedal down the court motioning that he had ice in his veins. Pelle Larsson, who gave the ‘Cats their first lead in the second half with nine to play on an off-center three also delighted the thousands of Arizona fans who turned the building into McKale North.

Tournament Most Outstanding Player Azuolas Tubelis was more than capable of shouldering the scoring load for Arizona as he had done most of the season to lead the Pac-12 in points. He finished the night with 19 to go along with 14 rebounds and consistently found success in the mid-range.

Opposite number Jaime Jaquez Jr., who was named player of the year out West over Tubelis, labored on both ends and appeared crushed after the final buzzer that he couldn't deliver UCLA their first conference tourney crown since 2014. He did end up with a double-double but missed his final seven shots and had several good looks rim out amid a nearly three-minute scoring drought for the team to end the game.

"I thought I had a lot of great looks, but I just missed," Jaquez said. "It was a tough one."

Fellow senior Tyger Campbell, who hadn't missed more than two free throws in a game since mid-January, also had an opportunity to at least send the game into overtime after drawing a late foul call while in the bonus. He calmly rattled in the first but couldn't connect on the second to tie the game in the final six seconds, spoiling what had been an otherwise stellar outing for the point guard who finished with 16 points on the night.

Freshman Amari Bailey also had another coming out party in Vegas, ending with a game-high 19 and throwing down a vicious dunk down the middle of the lane that was tragically taken away by a controversial offensive foul call.

"We had a wide open shot to win the game [at the end], it is what it is," Cronin said of Dylan Andrews' 3-pointer hitting the back rim and bouncing out seconds before confetti rained onto the court. "Tyger is beating himself up over a missed free throw but that has nothing to do with our bad fouls and defensive breakdowns … I’d take Tyger at the line with my career on the line."

The Bruins now await their fate with the NCAA Tournament on Selection Sunday but could see the loss impacting their chances to land the No. 1 seed in the West and remain in the Pacific time zone all the way until the Final Four, including a regional in two weeks right back at T-Mobile Arena.

At worst Cronin’s side will find themselves on the 2-line that they will likely share with an Arizona squad that has been at the forefront of the two bitter rivals’ fight for conference supremacy for much of the past several years. 

In the end, it was the Wildcats who got the last laugh on a windy desert night where all the worries that typically preoccupy fans, administrators and coaches seemed to melt away and give away to a compelling thriller which put the Pac-12 in the positive spotlight the league has yearned for the last few months.


Amid a wild postgame scene in front of the tens of thousands that stuck around to see the ‘Cats cut down the nets, things got a little too heated when fans, first spotted by the Associated Press, appeared to get into a slight altercation with Mick Cronin’s father in the lower reaches of the arena after the final buzzer. 

The younger Cronin was not aware of the events that transpired but, upon being informed in his postgame news conference, quickly left the session and headed back toward the court while being followed a few steps behind by UCLA athletic director Martin Jarmond.

Jarmond eventually spoke with commissioner George Kliavkoff and deputy commissioner Jamie Zaninovich after the trophy ceremony about the incident which marred an otherwise festive atmosphere following such an entertaining and competitive game.


Both Arizona and UCLA are thankful for a couple of days to rest up before heading off to the sites of their first round NCAA Tournament games. Each leaves Las Vegas with a number of concerns surrounding key players and almost seemed relieved that the run was over ahead of the games that really matter to the two programs.

"Everybody’s banged up this time of year," Lloyd said. "It’s really hard to play three games in three days … In college basketball at the highest level, it’s hard to have great depth anymore."

The coach declined to give any detailed updates on Ballo’s hand or Kriisa’s shoulder but indicated both would be fine for their sub-regional contests next Thursday or Friday.

Prior to the game, the Bruins confirmed that Bonta would be back for the big dance as well after he was observed moving around much better on Saturday night. 

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