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MBB: Wildcats Come Back to Avoid Upset Against UCLA - 1/20/24

Cover photo: Giacomo Kain, KAMP Student Radio

Saturday afternoon saw the McKale Memorial Center once again come to life as one of the hardest arenas to play in as a visitor in men’s college basketball. A sold-out crowd packed into the arena to see their hometown #12 Arizona Wildcats take on the Bruins of UCLA, a historic PAC-12 basketball rivalry that will come to an end once the season wraps up. While UCLA has been a great basketball school historically, they entered amid a rough season, their offense lingering around the 60-point range all season, leading to a heavy reliance on their stout defense. Their last time out, they came back against Arizona State to win a very defensive 68-66 road affair on Wednesday night. As for Arizona, they entered with one of the strongest offenses in the nation, one that had slowed down a step as they lost to Washington State on the road on the 13th before rebounding against USC at home on Wednesday night. By all indications, most were expecting the Wildcats to blow out the Bruins, bettors setting the line at 17.5.

While the expectation was a blowout, it became clear very quickly that UCLA’s defense was going to dictate the match. The Bruins stifled Arizona to start, eventually opening up a 32-13 lead midway through the first half thanks to a three-and-a-half-minute-long scoring drought that saw every possible shot miss. UCLA’s Sebastian Mack and Lazar Stefanovic took advantage of their staunch defense, contributing to the Bruins’ 17-2 run that gave them a concerning lead. Over the course of the half, the Wildcats made it more respectable, but it wasn’t until the second half that they began to truly threaten the comeback.

Caleb Love goes over UCLA's Sebastian Mack for a dunk during Arizona's comeback victory against the Bruins at McKale, 1/20/24. Credit: Giacomo Cain, KAMP Student Radio

Midway through the second half, Arizona found themselves down 13 with time ticking down. Tommy Lloyd decided to switch to a full-court press, banking on UCLA making their own mistakes. With the added pressure, Arizona began to claw back into the game, key takeaways being converted for points while the Bruins began to panic. As the lead dwindled down to just four, the pressure from the Wildcats and the crowd finally pushed the Bruins to the breaking point. With 6:04 left in the match, Stefanovic picked up a foul. UCLA coach Mick Cronin, incensed by the call and watching as his team continued to slip, finally snapped, picking up a technical foul that gave Pelle Larsson four straight free throws. Larsson comfortably converted all four, McKale dead silent until the very last one went in, exploding into a deafening roar as the fourth free throw tied it all up at 60. At this point, a Wildcat victory was inevitable. Both teams would battle back and forth but in the end, the Wildcats gave themselves some room and wound up with a big 77-71 victory.

Pelle Larsson easily was the man of the match as his 22 points on the afternoon were pivotal to Arizona’s comeback. Oumar Ballo’s 17 points and 13 rebounds likewise deserve mention as his presence by the rim was paramount, even as Adem Bona worked to contain him throughout the match.

With the victory, the Wildcats find themselves now atop of the PAC-12 after Oregon found themselves victims of an upset by Utah on the road. While the Wildcats were victorious, there is valid concern due to the offensive struggles to start both halves, however, it is likely Coach Lloyd will emphasize these issues in practice, especially given the key matches against Oregon State and Oregon this week, both on the road Thursday night and Saturday afternoon respectively. Victories in both could find Arizona securing a much-needed lead over the PAC-12. UCLA meanwhile will take the week off and gear up for a crosstown rivalry matchup against USC on Saturday on the road.

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