LAS VEGAS – Bennedict “Houdini” Mathurin was back at it on Saturday night.
Now you don’t see him, now you do.
And poof there went the UCLA Bruins in the championship of the Pac-12 Conference title game as UA won 84-76. Arizona – like Mathurin a time or too (many) – disappeared then reappeared when it had to the most.
Ta … da!
Vegas’ magic acts had nothing on Arizona’s mystifying second-half performance where the Wildcats outscored UCLA 39-26 to give Arizona the regular-season title and the postseason title.
Ta … da!
Then, like pulling a Bruin out of his hat, Mathurin came on, finishing with 18 points in the second half as he put a ribbon on his most valuable player award on Saturday night.
When did he feel he had to step up and take control? Did he think he had to, given the situation?
Not really, he said. But the coaches told him he could have/should have taken a few more threes and he could have maybe gotten to the basket more. In the second half he did, given UCLA was playing him differently.
“I adjusted,” he said.
You think? He went 4 for 7 in the second half. The bulk of his points came from the free throw line, hitting 13 of 15 shot. It was that aggressiveness that led to Arizona finding a way.
“Ben, he was special,” Tommy Lloyd said. “It kind of took him a while to work himself into the game. They were denying him and making some of his catches tougher and we tried to find ways to loosen that up.”
And boy did he get loose, particularly on two big shots that even impressed Lloyd. Lloyd called them “unbelievable” after he came off a baseline screen.
“Incredible,” Lloyd said. “I told the (coaching) staff those were great play calls … I’m total joking because those were impossible shots.”
But when you’re the Pac-12’s Player of the Year you have that ability to do special things and, well, Mathurin was able to pull off some special things.
He did have some pretty good assistants:
Christian Koloko and Oumar Ballo combined for 11 blocks.
Adama Bal hit two huge 3-pointers in his nine minutes of play.
Pelle Larsson had eight points.
Azuolas Tubelis had nine points.
And the list could go on, but … the star attraction was Mathurin.
He was worth the price of admission on Saturday night.
“To have a player who can rise up and stick a jumper in front of a sold out 18,000-seat arena is pretty special,” Lloyd said. “He has a great competitive spirit to him. I’m happy for how far he’s come and for everything that’s coming his way.”
Everyone proved to be magical – who is this kid Dalen Terry? – but it was Mathurin who led the way. He was in the middle of Arizona’s great run – 8-0 that turned into a 31-11 run that got it back into the game after being down 53-41 with 17 minutes left in the game.
He hit one of Lloyd’s aforementioned 3-pointers to make it 53-49 UCLA then minutes later stole the ball and got a layup to inch Arizona close at 55-53. It was his second magical 3-pointer to give Arizona’s first lead of the second half at 59-58 with nine minutes left.
Arizona’s comeback was complete, eventually starting a pull-away that gave the Wildcats their eighth Pac-12 postseason title and seventh double-double for being regular-season and postseason champions.
They did it without Kerr Kriisa. And his replacement Justin Kier in deep foul trouble. Dalen filled in and did an admirable job, finishing with 15 points and seven assists and, a-hum, no turnovers.
There was no panic, no pain.
“We talk (with Kerr) and tell him we’ve got your back, we’ve got your back,” Koloko said. “When Justin got in foul trouble, next man up. Adama checked in in the first half, he hit two big 3s. It’s just next man up.
“We trust each other, we love (and) trust each other. Whoever is on the court we’re going to play hard. We’re going to fight together and try to get a win.”
Mathurin made it a point to “give a shout out” to Terry.
“He’s been the backup point guard, but he was able to step up and make a lot of plays, simple plays,” he said.
And Mathurin came in with the bigger ones.
It came without Lloyd prompting him to go get it. He just did.
“I make sure I grab him and make sure I pick up his chin a little bit,” Lloyd said. “We make eye contact and I tell him (think) simple thoughts, At the end of the day, it always ends with have fun and smile because this is special, and I want him to enjoy it.”
Next showing? The first round of the NCAA Tournament next week.