LAS VEGAS — A year ago around this time, Arizona was out of the playoffs awaiting punishment from the NCAA for past stealth.
The Wildcats are still waiting for those penalties to be issued, but they are doing so as two-time Pac-12 champions.
Top-seeded Arizona rallied from 12 in the second half to beat No. 2 UCLA 84-76 in the Pac-12 Tournament Finals on Saturday night at T-Mobile Arena. It was his first tournament title since 2018 and, with a regular-season championship and a conference-record 18 championship wins, sends the Wildcats (31-3) into the NCAA Tournament as one of the teams , otherwise the team to beat.
“When I got together with this group of misfits, I knew we had something special,” the UA coach said. Tommy Lloyd said before lifting the Pac-12 tournament title trophy.
Benoit Mathurin led Arizona with 27 points, 18 in the second half when the Wildcats used a 31-11 streak to go from 53-41 to 72-64, with seven assists. Dalen Terry had 15 points, seven rebounds and seven assists, Christian Koloko had 13 points, 10 rebounds and 4 blocks and Oumar Ballo six as the Wildcats crushed 11 blocked UCLA shots.
UCLA (25-7) got 19 of Jules Bernard, Jaime Jaquez Jr. was 18 years old, Johnny Juzang was 16 and Tyger Campbell added 14, but the Bruins shot just 37.1 percent in the second half while Arizona shot 66.7 percent in the second half and 51.9 percent for the game.
Arizona trailed 40-35 at halftime, with the margin more than doubling just before the break when Juzang hit a 3-pointer at the buzzer. Tyger Campbell 3-pointers and a 3-point game from Jaquez made the Bruins 46-39 with 18:58 left, and on that play Justin Kier scoop of his fourth foul.
Koloko was fouled by UCLA’s Cody Riley with 18:29 to go, but after game officials reviewed the footage and rated Koloko with a blatant nudge. Jules BernardBernard made both free throws, then Campbell hit a jumper to put the Bruins up 11.
That call, one of many that had the Arizona fan crowd booed, was the turning point of the game.
Arizona trailed by 12 points before starting an 8-0 series, with Mathurin’s 3 reducing the deficit to 53-49 with 14:21 to go. Jaylen Clark layup, the Wildcats went on another 7-0 run and took their first lead since the 7:13 mark of the first half on a 3-point play from Koloko to move up 56-55.
Bernard hit a 3 to put the Bruins back in front only to see Arizona score another seven in a row, with At Dalen Terry’s backdoor pass to Shovel Larsson for a layup putting Arizona ahead 63-58 with 8:17 to go.
Flights from Koloko and Kier – who returned to the field with 6:20 to go after Larsson committed his fourth foul – set up quick break opportunities which Arizona cashed in, going up 72-64 with 5:27 to go, then the teams exchanged baskets for the next one. 2 ½ minutes with the Wildcats retaining at least a 6-point advantage.
In the end, UA made 4 of 6 free throws while blocking four of UCLA’s last seven shots, including three in the final 38 seconds.
The Wildcats hit the inside early in the game, scoring their first 10 points in the paint, while UCLA focused more on jumpers. But then Arizona started to get in trouble and the game plan of the Bruins has changed.
Kier picked up its second foul with 12:06 left in the first half, with UCLA taking its first lead a minute later. Larsson got his second with 10:06 before halftime, then Terry got his second with 9:21 remaining.
Foul issue prompts Lloyd to turn to freshman wing Adama Ballwho quickly sank a 3 to put Arizona ahead 20-18 with 8:45 to go. He hit a second with 5:02 to go tie at 24.
Kier came back with 7:13 to go and was immediately called for his third foul, sending him back to the bench, while Larsson got his third with 5:59 to go.
Jaquez, who had scored 99 points in his last four games, got his first field goal with 3:43 left in the first half and then hit a 3-point game to give the Bruins their biggest lead at 34- 28. cut the deficit to one before UCLA finished the half on a 6-2 run.
Arizona is now awaiting its seeding and regional placement in the NCAA Tournament. The Wildcats are expected to be the No. 1 seed, most likely in the South Region, playing their first and second round games in San Diego with a trip to San Antonio for the second weekend if they advance.