LAS VEGAS — While quietly explaining yet another Arizona Wildcats disappointment in the Pac-12 tournament, guard T.J. McConnell threw out a little perspective.
Arizona lost 75-71 to UCLA in the championship game, its free throws crooked, its stretch-run play lacking composure, and its defense suddenly inconsistent.
But there was also this: The Wildcats are still 30-4, still expected to become a No. 1 NCAA tournament seed when selections are announced today.
“This pretty much means nothing,” McConnell said. “We just didn’t win a championship. We have to move on to next week.”
Which is true, of course. But the odd thing was that Arizona didn’t play like a team with nothing to lose Saturday at MGM Grand Garden Arena.
Not with a history of Pac-12 tournament disappointments that included a bitter semifinal loss to UCLA last season, a NIT-ticket-punching loss to Colorado in the 2012 final and even an overtime loss to Washington in 2011.
There were also disappointments, too, under coaches Russ Pennell, Kevin O’Neill and Lute Olson, with the Wildcats having failed to win a Pac-10 or Pac-12 tourney title since 2002.
They wanted to win this one. Maybe too much so.
But instead of being the freewheeling team that fueled so much of its high-flying offense with ferocious defense, the Wildcats lost their defensive edge early Saturday and never fully recovered. The Bruins took leads of up to 11 points in the first half, shooting 58.1 percent from the field before halftime against a team that had kept Utah and Colorado under 30 percent shooting in its first two Pac-12 tournament games.
All this despite UA coach Sean Miller’s decision to start Rondae Hollis-Jefferson over Gabe York in order to better match up with the big Bruins backcourt, which features 6-foot-9-inch sophomore Kyle Anderson at the point much of the time.
“We didn’t get back in transition defense, they were getting transition buckets, and we couldn’t stop it at the time,” Hollis-Jefferson said. “That kind of messed us up and set us back.”
Arizona battled back to within three points at halftime and held a two-point lead as late as 7:49 left in the game, but never took charge of it, even as a mostly pro-UA sold-out crowd of 12,916 made the arena sound like just another big game at McKale.
Instead, the Wildcats may have frozen. Not only were they a jaw-dropping 37.5 percent from the free-throw line for the entire game, missing the front ends of two different one-and-one opportunities over the final four minutes, but they also struggled with their composure down the stretch.
After Nick Johnson missed the front end of a one-and-one with two minutes left, McConnell lost the ball toward the end of the shot clock, but UCLA turned the ball over on its ensuing possession.
Then Hollis-Jefferson turned the ball over inside with 54 seconds left, and UCLA responded with a go-ahead three from Jordan Adams with 45 seconds remaining that gave the Bruins a 71-68 lead.
Adams’ three came on an assist from Anderson, who said he noticed Johnson momentarily come toward him and leave Adams.
“Once I saw him commit to me, I wanted to get the ball to Jordan immediately,” Anderson said. “I knew he would (make it). I knew it was going in from the moment it left my hands.”
From there, it didn’t get any better for the Wildcats, with Aaron Gordon, Johnson and York all missing three-pointers over the final 25 seconds before Johnson made one when it was too late, with two seconds left and UCLA still holding a two-point lead.
“I think a lot of us were thinking what we needed to do to win the game,” Hollis-Jefferson said. “So it was a lot of pressure going through your mind, that you’ve gotta shoot the foul shot. We were just thinking about it too much. Sometimes you just gotta do it.”
And sometimes you shouldn’t do it. Miller said there was a lack of poise, that the Wildcats didn’t necessarily need to go for a three-pointer with 20 seconds still on the clock.
But while Miller mostly blamed himself for that lack of poise, Gordon blamed himself for his miss. He had another strong game overall, with 11 points, eight rebounds and eight assists to only one turnover but beat himself up over that three.
In fact, even after the cooling off period, McConnell put his arm around him and consoled Gordon.
“Wish I had that shot back,” Gordon said. “If I shot it again, I guarantee it would go in.”
He won’t get to, of course. But he might see that situation in another game during the NCAA tournament, when the stakes are much higher. Miller said the good thing about a game like Saturday’s is how the experience can “make you better moving forward into the NCAA tournament.”
At the same time, no matter how little the game and the tournament really meant on paper, there was also a part of Miller that wanted it badly. Three times in his five seasons at UA, Miller has guided the Wildcats into the conference tournament final, and they’ve lost all three of them.
“In one sense, it’s heartbreaking, but I feel like we’re on the right track,” Miller said. “One of these days we’re going to come here and break through.”