LAS VEGAS - The Arizona Wildcats were almost their early-season selves once again Friday.
For most of a 66-64 Pac-12 tournament semifinal loss to UCLA, the Wildcats were playing the kind of defense they needed to, all but muzzling Bruins point guard Larry Drew II and standout wing Shabazz Muhammad early.
The Wildcats had a balanced, mostly effective offense that featured not only the usual double-figure scoring from Solomon Hill (10), Mark Lyons (13) and Nick Johnson (10), but 15 points off the bench from an aggressive Brandon Ashley and a big three in the final minute from Grant Jerrett.
There were some costly turnovers and a late technical foul by UA coach Sean Miller that resulted in two UCLA free throws, but the Wildcats had almost everything they needed to beat the Bruins for the first time this season in three tries.
Except some magic at the end. Like the kind that resulted in wins over Florida, San Diego State and Colorado in December and January.
Down 66-64 after Kyle Anderson put back a missed jumper from an otherwise torrid-shooting Jordan Adams with 23 seconds left, the Wildcats worked the ball to Hill into the final seconds.
Hill faked a three-point attempt, then stepped in with five seconds left for an 18-footer ... that missed, and a UA scramble in the final seconds failed to produce a shot.
Instead, Hill wondered if he should have tried to draw contact with Adams, who broke his foot on the play after scoring 18 of his 24 points after halftime to power the Bruins' comeback from an 11-point UA lead midway through the second half.
"I wish I could do it over," Hill said.
That was it. Arizona won't get a chance to avenge its losses in the past two Pac-12 Tournament finals, no "T-shirts and hats," as Hill noted - and the Wildcats (25-7) might have trouble justifying a better NCAA tournament placement than the Bruins (25-8) when selections are announced Sunday afternoon.
"We felt like we were playing hard on defense and put it together," Johnson said. "So it was definitely a tough loss. But we can take some things from this tournament into the NCAA tournament. We know we've got to play hard on every possession and play together."
The Wildcats can't allow a guy like Adams to score 13 straight points by driving the baseline and flipping in reverse layups, while UA is picking up fouls. Over the entire game, Adams earned 13 trips to the free-throw line, hitting 11. He took four more free-throw attempts than UA's entire team.
"He's a true scorer," Johnson said. "When he gets hot, it's hard to slow him down."
Arizona also had 13 turnovers that resulted in 17 UCLA points, with the final three turnovers costing the Cats for different reasons.
With 9:44 left and Arizona ahead 49-40, Anderson stole the ball from Johnson, and Shabazz Muhammad made a layup and drew a foul three seconds later. Muhammad missed the free throw but came back again 30 seconds later to complete a three-point play that cut UA's lead to just 49-45.
Then, after Lyons missed a three-pointer, Adams hit a jumper to make it 49-47 and UA's momentum had clearly vanished.
Lyons was whistled for the next turnover with 4:37 left, though Miller insisted a UCLA player touched the ball as Lyons regained possession. Miller expressed disappointment in himself for earning a technical at a critical time - but also in the officials for calling both the double dribble against Lyons and the technical when Miller said he did not curse.
"The reason I got a technical foul is because I said, 'He touched the ball. He touched the ball. He touched the ball,' " Miller said. "That's a hard one now when you work August, September, October, November, December, January, February, and here we are."
Miller then looked over on the podium at Hill.
"My man over here, he's never coming back here again. His coach gets a technical foul. Didn't cuss. Didn't challenge him."
But Miller insisted several more times during his podium interview that he deserved the ultimate blame. Adams sank both technical free throws to tie it at 56.
"I told our team after the game that's all completely on me," Miller said. "If you're the coach of a team and you get a technical in this type of situation under four minutes, that's unacceptable. And he made both free throws, hence the difference in the game."
Lyons, however, wasn't about to blame Miller.
"I feel like my coach should be more respected than to get a tech under four minutes," Lyons said. "He's been through a lot. He's coached a lot of teams that have been a lot of places."
The third turnover down the stretch was only Lyons' second of the game against three assists, but it turned into a dagger.
With 1:15 left and UCLA leading 62-61, Adams picked off Lyons on the wing for another turnover, raced downcourt and was fouled by Kaleb Tarczewski. That resulted in a foul-out for Tarczewski, and another two made free throws by Adams that put UCLA ahead 64-61.
While Jerrett sank a three to tie the game at 64 with 55 seconds left, the Wildcats failed to make a defensive stand even after Adams missed his final three-point attempt. Anderson rebounded the miss and put it back for the final score.
Hill said the officiating distracted the Wildcats down the stretch, to the point where they didn't keep Anderson away from the ball when they had to.
"A couple of guys lost their head," Hill said. "When Kyle Anderson got the putback, it's a mishap, because when you slow down the game, and it comes down to little shots, everybody's watching the ball instead of being aggressive and boxing out and trying to get the rebound."
So it was a lesson. A mid-March lesson. For the Wildcats and maybe even their head coach.
Another tough lesson, and the season is over. But the Wildcats, who have put together four straight solid efforts, don't plan on needing another.
"We're disappointed, but we know we've got the talent to do a lot of great things from here on out," Lyons said. "So we're not really stressing like that. We just want to play.
"We want to win."
On StarNet: See more photos from the game at azstarnet.com/gallery
• Championship game: No. 21 UCLA vs. Oregon
• Where: MGM Grand Garden Arena, Las Vegas
• When: 8 p.m.
• TV; radio: ESPN; 1490-AM
Contact Bruce Pascoe at 573-4145 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @brucepascoe