Arizona Basketball

Arizona Wildcats’ shutdown defense faces another challenge with UCLA for title



LAS VEGAS, Nev. — The fourth-ranked Arizona Wildcats did not get a chance for rival UCLA to make a return visit to McKale Center because of the Pac-12’s unbalanced schedule.

Another Arizona-UCLA matchup at McKale Center North, the MGM Grand Garden Arena with a majority of Wildcat fans, will suffice for Saturday’s Pac-12 tournament championship at 3 p.m. Arizona (30-3 overall) defeated UCLA 79-75 in the first meeting Jan. 9 at Pauley Pavilion.

“The environment … it’s like we’re playing in McKale right now, our fans are so amazing,” Arizona coach Sean Miller said. “They’ve traveled everywhere in this country to watch us this year. We felt them in New York City. We felt them in Michigan. We felt them in San Diego really early on, and many of our Pac‑12 stops they’ve been there.

“Right now in Vegas they’re in full force. I believe we feed off of them. When you think about (the title) game, it’s even more exciting because I feel like there will be more of them tomorrow. When you’re us, it’s almost like an obligation to play well when you have that many people travel to watch us.”

At stake in another chapter of the Arizona-UCLA rivalry (no doubt the best in the Pac-12): An opportunity for Arizona to notch the program’s first conference tournament title in 12 years.

“We may have only played UCLA once, but we’ve watched them closely throughout the year,” said Nick Johnson, who played like a Pac-12 Player of the Year should with a game-high 16 points in the 63-43 drubbing of Colorado on Friday night.

“UCLA is really a great program with really good players. It will be a good challenge for us.”

UCLA and Arizona have looked impressive in the last two rounds to get to this point. The Bruins defeated Oregon 82-63 in the quarterfinals and routed Stanford 84-59 tonight.

Two emphatic alley-oop dunks by Johnson ignited the Wildcats in each half against Colorado. Arizona’s defense, which shutdown Utah (71-39 win Thursday in the quarterfinals), fed off the electric dunks to pummel the Buffaloes.

“When we get a few dunks, we get hyped,” Johnson said. “It’s fun to play. When somebody is having fun, they’re going to work a little bit harder.”

Johnson’s second alley-oop in the second half fueled a 17-3 run that turned a 34-29 advantage with 15:38 remaining in the game to a 51-32 lead with 7:58 left. Colorado was limited to 19 points in the second half, a season-low for the Buffaloes in a half.

Within Arizona’s knockout run, Aaron Gordon swatted away an Xavier Johnson dunk attempt that challenged Nick Johnson’s acrobatics for the highlight play of the game.

“We’re a very athletic team,” said Gordon, who finished with nine points, nine rebounds, three assists, three steals and three blocked shots. “Plays like that break the other team’s back. It takes the wind out of their sails. Some teams aren’t
able to regroup from that.”

The best players for Utah and Colorado did not regroup against Arizona. The Wildcats’ defense would not allow that. UCLA has Kyle Anderson and Jordan Adams, who combined for 31.9 points heading into the tournament.

Utah’s Jordan Loveridge, Delon Wright and Brandon Taylor were a combined 1 of 16 against Arizona. Colorado’s Xavier Johnson, Askia Booker and Josh Scott were combined 10 of 34.

That’s a 22.2 percent shooting mark (11 of 50) from the opposition’s top six players, guys who are the reason why Utah and Colorado combine for 44 victories.

Johnson was asked if he’s the type of player who looks at the stats of those he defended before his own numbers, and he quickly responded: “I knew Askia Booker and Xavier Johnson were 8 for 25 (from the field). T.J. and I were talking about that.

“Josh Scott was also pretty much contained the whole game by Kaleb (Tarczewski) and our inside defense.”

Scott, who leads the Buffaloes with 209 free-throw attempts, did not get to the foul line. He finished with four points and two rebounds in 34 minutes.

“We were smart with that,” Johnson said when asked about Scott’s ability to draw fouls and score from the free-throw line. “Kaleb has a tendency to get in foul trouble. We trapped Scott a little bit to keep him off a one-on-one game with Kaleb.

“The times when Kaleb defended Scott, he was great. When Scott tried to drive, Kaleb showed his hands and stopped him.”

Arizona’s defensive efforts the last two games have resulted in Utah and Colorado combining for only 82 points while shooting only 25.5 percent and 29.4 percent, respectively. Remember at the start of Miller’s tenure some questioned his stubbornness to stick with the man-to-man defense?

Miller actually utilized the zone a limited amount of times in his first two seasons as an emergency when his interior defense struggled because of a lack of depth and size.

“You know, people in the past would criticize a coach like me for not playing zone,” Miller said during the postgame press conference. “Well, if you put all the eggs in one basket, you have a chance to be great. Sometimes when you try to play that secondary defense, you can never quite reach greatness with one thing.

“You just kind of bounce back and forth. That’s why we play man‑to‑man. That’s our philosophy, and we have these guys doing it right now for sure.”

The Wildcats have now limited opponents to less than 50 points six times this season. It’s the most since the 1950-51 team held seven opponents below 50. publisher, writer and editor Javier Morales is a former Arizona Press Club award winner. He also writes articles for Bleacher Report and Lindy’s College Sports.


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