LAS VEGAS — The MGM Grand Garden Arena was home to some of the greatest bouts in boxing history.
The ghosts of Mike Tyson and Evander Holyfield course through the stadium’s bowels. Oscar de la Hoya beat Fernando Vargas here and lost to Shane Mosley. And Bernard Hopkins and Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Manny Pacquiao.
There has been a lot of blood on these floors, and quite a few tears, the latter shed by Arizona and UCLA on Saturday afternoon, the Wildcats’ of disappointment, the Bruins’ of joy after a 75-71 upset win in the championship game of the Pac-12 tournament.
That was just the undercard, though.
Nick Johnson vs. Kyle Anderson, now that was the main event.
Punch after punch, slug after slug, both landed body blows. Johnson, the conference regular-season Player of the Year, one-upped Anderson in the scoring column 22-21, but Anderson, the tournament’s most outstanding player, grabbed 15 rebounds.
After the fight, the judges called it a draw.
“It was between them two, and it could’ve gone either way,” said Anderson’s teammate Jordan Adams, who delivered a knockout blow of his own with a game-winning three-pointer with 45 seconds left. “Those are two great players who do a lot for their teams.”
In a game that could have gone either way — evidenced by the seven ties and 10 lead changes — UCLA took it to the body early, and Arizona was on the ropes from the get-go. The Bruins led by 11 less than six minutes into the game, and after the Wildcats’ almost unbelievable demolition of their first two tournament opponents, even UCLA seemed surprised.
But what lifted the Bruins was their resilience even after Arizona made its run, albeit a late run, as the Wildcats claimed their second lead of the game — the first came at 3-2 — with just less than 16 minutes remaining.
“To win a championship against other great teams means a lot,” Anderson said. “We knew however many points we got up, it was going to go down to the wire. They weren’t going to throw the towel in.”
Not with Johnson leading the way.
Johnson had 14 of his 22 points in the second half, including a pair of clutch three-pointers, one that gave Arizona a 64-62 lead with 7:49 left and another that cut UCLA’s lead to two with two seconds left that gave the Wildcats at least a glimmer of hope.
On this day, however, Anderson gained the upper hand with his uppercuts, scoring 10 in the second half, including 8-for-11 free-throw shooting, while grabbing nine rebounds.
Some of his teammates understandably thought Anderson was snubbed of the Player of the Year trophy after averaging nearly 15 points per game, a conference-best 6.6 assists per game and a conference fourth-best 8.7 rebounds per game.
“There’s no doubt in my mind,” UCLA’s Bryce Alford said. “Nick Johnson is a fantastic player, and he does so much for his team. Great defender, leading scorer. But we’ve got Kyle’s back. If they were to redo the award after this tournament, they’d give it to Kyle.”
Not that it mattered much.
On the record, Anderson was diplomatic about the POY voting, understanding that the best player on the conference’s best regular-season team was due the hardware. Privately he may have seethed, but he didn’t let it show, much.
“Nah, nah,” he said, laughing, when asked if he had any moments of disappointment about the award voting. “I’m glad I got this one.”
Even in the locker room, Anderson kept his feelings to himself, keeping focused on UCLA’s team efforts and goals.
Some teammates were perhaps a bit less diplomatic.
“Kyle is always an ugly dude, so he always has that ugly look on his face the entire time,” said Anderson’s recruiting classmate, forward Tony Parker. “You can’t really tell anything with Kyle because he’s so ugly. He’s going to be like that for the rest of his life, so nothing fazes him.”
Well, he sure looked pretty on Saturday, even after he took a few punches in the beautiful MGM Grand Garden Arena, even after a fight that will last for the ages.
“It was a war those last four minutes, but that’s the best basketball to be a part of,” Anderson said. “I talked to Rondae (Hollis-Jefferson) during the game, and we were telling each other this is so much fun. We come from the East Coast, we’re out here playing Arizona vs. UCLA, this is fun right here.
“We’re never going to forget this in our lives.”