When it came to Arizona vs. UCLA, of course it was.
Not exactly classic basketball from either side on each half for each team but it was exciting – sometimes thrilling – basketball.
Arizona overcame a 19-point deficit to win 77-71 over the Bruins in McKale Center.
It felt like a full day of work to UA coach Tommy Lloyd.
“The game literally felt like it took eight hours for me,” he said.
It had enough drama for could have filled a 9-5 job.
After one of its worst halves of the season – no need to remind you of the Stanford game – Arizona roared back in the second half, despite being down 17 at a point in the second half. The 19 points were the largest margin for a UA comeback since beating Drexel in 2013.
It did seem a lot like 2002 when Arizona came back from 18 in the second half to beat UCLA and Oregon State.
Tommy Lloyd used the words “methodical” and “knuckle down” to describe the comeback in the second half.
“We got a little more connected,” he said.
And things got better. Arizona rallied. Pelle Larsson hit shots. KJ Lewis hit shots. Oumar Ballo hit free throws, seven of eight.
Larson finished with a career-high 22 points, 14 coming in the crucial second half.
Ballo added 17 points and 13 rebounds.
KJ Lewis had a career-high 13 off the bench.
“I think KJ was the difference maker off the bench,” Larsson said. “He was awesome.”
UA outscored UCLA 49-26 in the second half.
The second half was exactly how most think Arizona should play, given its early-season performances against quality schools. There was a stretch in the second half where UA scored on 13 consecutive possessions (free throws included).
And it all contributed to a monumental comeback for the ages in what has been a storied rivalry in the Pac-8, Pac-10 and Pac-12.
Larsson said the win was a signature win for this team.
“It was a really gritty win, a character win,” said Larsson, who was instrumental in getting in the win. “We have things we can do better — we shouldn’t be down like that at home.”
Arizona coach Tommy Lloyed agreed … on both levels. It was a big win and one the loud McKale Center crowd contributed to.
“I hope so,” Lloyd said when asked about being a signature win. “… you have to learn how to dig deep, digging deep is a huge part of it. I’m so proud of our guys.”
And proud of the crowd that showed up and was treated to a number of exciting things: a win, UA football players Noah Fifita and Tetairoa McMillan announcing they’ll be back next year, a TJ McConnell sighting and a Bennedict Mathurin Ring of Honor ceremony.
“We weren’t giving them a lot to cheer about and then they (those in attendance) hung with us and got us through,” he said. “Thank goodness we played (UCLA) on this day and at home, because if that’s anywhere else we’re probably not getting that outcome.”
Arizona moved to 14-4 overall and 5-2 in the Pac-12.
Lloyd waxed poetic about how his players love Tucson, playing in McKale and trying to honor the legacy of the program.
“I think you have to call on all those saints and tough moments,” Lloyd said. “I feel it’s really cool to honor those former players and find a way to beat UCLA.”
Former UA player Matt Othick spoke to the team on Friday, talking about the importance of the rivalry. On Saturday – during halftime – Benn Mathurin was inducted into the school’s Ring of Honor. Lloyd and Mathurin met briefly and Mathurin said “kick ass.”
Arizona did in the second half, not so much the first. Arizona was down big and looked listless and lifeless. And UCLA was the opposite, hitting six 3s, making Arizona feel uncomfortable in its home.
Still, Lloyd told the team not to panic.
“Just hang in there, we just got to start playing better basketball,” he said when asked what he told them. “It might be trying to make an adjustment or two, but you can’t just completely panic. You have to have a sense of urgency, it can’t just be business as usual. I thought we did a good job that last seven minutes of the first half.”
It did, going on an 11-2 run to make it 37-28. Arizona shot just 38 percent in the half.
As Lloyd said, “it gave us a chance.”
Then the second half came and it started off slow again. He said UA has to learn how to start halves better. Of course it does. But, this time, unlike the last two road games, Arizona was able to rally to get the win.
“Hang in there, make that next play,” he said. “Dig in. You don’t necessarily want your team to be in that position, but when you’re in that position, you got to take advantage of it. Our guys did today, and I think it was a great experience.”
Because they won. Conversely, UCLA coach Mick Cronin was angered that UA shot 23 second half free throws. Two UCLA big men fouled out in the process.
“We were able to pass and move and run offense in the first half,” Cronin said. “Then the game became an unofficial street fight, and we had to spread it out and drive the ball. We couldn’t throw a pass.”
Or hit a shot.