LOS ANGELES — Go ahead, tell the Arizona Wildcats they’re going to lose.
They’ll appreciate the favor.
“A lot of people were saying we were going to lose today,” guard Nick Johnson said, after pushing the Wildcats to a school-record-tying 16-0 start with 79-75 win at UCLA. “We’re still not getting respect. I saw a bunch of people say it … commentators, people like that, taking shots at us.
“It happened at Michigan. It happened here. So we just use those little things to stay on top of things and have an edge.”
Johnson helped pull out that Dec. 14 game at Michigan with six free throws in the last 24 seconds and he did it again Thursday, with a game-high 22 points that included a gutsy driving floater that put UA up for good, 71-70, with 1:27 left.
Even though Gabe York had already poked holes in UCLA’s zone defense with 3-of-6 three-point shooting, and center Kaleb Tarczewski was a perfect 6 for 6 en route to his 16 points, there was no doubt which player UA coach Sean Miller wanted to shoot the ball on that possession.
“The value he has to our team, I would put up against any guard in the country,” Miller said.
But it wasn’t just Johnson’s last field goal that helped the Wildcats. It was also that he defended UCLA leading scorer Jordan Adams most of the game, making Adams work hard for his 12 points, doing so on 4-for-15 shooting while making only 1 of 6 threes.
It was also how Johnson and fellow junior T.J. McConnell responded after Adams made that one three.
Adams’ shot ended what was a UCLA 13-0 run that tied the game at 68 with 2:23 left and, at that moment, the noise inside Pauley Pavilion was piercing, with fans who had seen the top-ranked Wildcats about to run away with the game suddenly slump.
That’s when Johnson and McConnell stepped in to stop the bleeding before it was too late.
“It was big for our team to keep our composure,” McConnell said. “Nick’s a great leader and we just gathered each other and said ‘You know we’re going to win this game. We’ve just got to keep our composure and execute down the stretch.’ ”
Even if they had any doubts deep inside, showing that to their teammates was not an option. As what he called the Wildcats’ “old guy,” Johnson said it was his responsibility to stay in control.
“We had to stay calm,” Johnson said. “Myself and T.J. can’t be all riled up. They could feed off of that. I know we have a young team out there, with Aaron (Gordon), Rondae (Hollis-Jefferson) and Gabe. They’re pretty young in this.”
So instead of panicking, the Wildcats followed their leaders. After Adams’ three tied the game, and Bryce Alford gave UCLA a brief 70-69 lead with two free throws, Johnson came back with his floater in the middle and UA held on by making 6 of 8 free throws down the stretch.
The final two of those free throws came from York, who totaled 12 points in his return home to Southern California.
“Nick and T.J., their composure is contagious for this team,” York said.
The final-stretch efforts, plus their previous 35 minutes of hard-nosed defense against the high-flying Bruins, moved Arizona to 16-0, tying the Wildcats’ school record for best start that was set in 1931-32. It also snapped Arizona’s three-game losing streak to UCLA, including a Pac-12 tournament semifinal game last season.
In the end, Arizona held UCLA to exactly 40 percent from the field, though the Bruins grabbed 16 offensive rebounds and were only out-rebounded by one against the Wildcats.
The Wildcats took a 42-38 halftime lead, having held UCLA to just 38.9-percent shooting in the first half, and were up by as many as 13 in the second half before UCLA made its run.
But the Bruins wound up dropping to 12-3 overall and 1-1 in the Pac-12, while Arizona moved to 3-0 in the Pac-12.
The Wildcats will have two days to prepare for a Sunday matchup at USC before returning home next week, when they could have the school record for best start ever on their résumé at 17-0.
“We know 16-0 is not easy to do,” Miller said. “I think we all have a lot of pride in the fact that we’ve been able to do it. And yet, it’s up to us to continue to forge forward and not worry too much about that.
“Because it’s so much about the next game. So many pivotal games remain, including the game on Sunday.”