When the Arizona Wildcats headed to Northern California nearly a month ago, they had every reason to close their eyes and keep their heads down.
The Wildcats had come off their second straight Saturday home loss, 69-67 to Washington, and had lost sixth man Kevin Parrom for the season just as he was beginning to return to peak form following a gunshot wound last fall.
Arizona was 5-4 in conference play and, perhaps more alarmingly, was 0-5 overall in games decided by six points or less. And they had to play at California and Stanford, who were a combined 9-0 at home at the time.
"I know it would be very hard to look at us as we went to the Bay after we lost to Washington and say, 'These guys really have their act together,'" UA coach Sean Miller said. "Kevin got hurt, we lost a pivotal home game (to Washington), another close game, but it was at that moment that we found ourselves."
The Wildcats swept the Bay Area schools and, while they didn't magically become a Top 25 team, they did improve enough to win seven of their eight past games.
In doing so, they also found enough to win the close ones. Their 65-63 win over UCLA on Saturday was their closest win of the season - though they also beat Oregon State in overtime by eight - and their third straight win in games decided by four points or less.
Overall, the Wildcats are now 3-5 in games decided by six points or less.
"Part of it is when you lose a couple of close ones, there's so much you can point blame to, that 'These guys can't win close games,'" Miller said. "Well, now when you judge us, we've been in a number of close games and it has a funny way of evening out. We've won a number of close games in February maybe that we didn't in January."
In February, the Wildcats won at Cal 78-74, won at Washington State 76-72 and beat UCLA by two on Saturday at McKale Center. In January, they lost by two points each to Oregon and Washington, and by one at Colorado.
But to Miller, the difference isn't in a last-second three-pointer that went in instead of out. It's in things such as avoiding slow starts, cutting down on turnovers and, as always, playing defense.
"We don't have a different approach," Miller said. "I just think we're better across the board and … in those close losses, it wasn't the last play of the game that hurt us. It was how we played earlier. We're just better throughout the game and it puts us in a much better light to finish off these games."
The way the Wildcats handled UCLA's big men Saturday was a case in point. While UCLA twins David and Travis Wear combined for 21 points, the Wears weren't as damaging as when they scored 34 during UCLA's 65-58 win on Jan. 5 in Anaheim, Calif.
While 300-pounder Josh Smith was damaging when he was in Saturday's game, with nine points and five rebounds in 14 minutes, the Wildcats helped keep him off the floor by going at him aggressively. Smith picked up four fouls, severely limiting his court time.
"We tried to attack the bigs when we could and really helped out" defensively, forward Solomon Hill said. "It's just making it hard on their guys in the post. The first game (against UCLA) we weren't ready in the post, but as the season went on, we were ready for it."
While the Wildcats still face an uncertain postseason, the process that Miller talks about often is finally yielding the kind of results he would expect.
Arizona is 21-9 overall and 12-5 in the conference, with a very realistic shot at finishing with the conference's No. 3 seed - which is exactly where the Wildcats were picked to finish in the Pac-12's official media poll.
"I believe our team has achieved to our talent level," Miller said. "And you look to see the seniors really step up and this team, more than any team I've been a part of, has been a function of seniors just really leading and playing exceptional basketball at the end. It makes you feel good."
• Arizona nominated guard Kyle Fogg for the Pac-12 Player of the Week award after he averaged 18.0 points and 10.5 rebounds in the Wildcats' sweep of the Los Angeles schools.
Arizona games decided by six points or less
• Nov. 23: San Diego State L, 61-57; SDSU started with 21-4 run
• Dec. 7: Florida L, 78-72 (OT); Florida 47-35 rebounding edge
• Jan. 14: Oregon L, 59-57; Oregon built 17-point second-half lead
• Jan. 21: Colorado L, 64-63; Arizona 3 for 20 from three-point range
• Jan. 28: Washington L, 69-67; Four UA turnovers in first five minutes
• Feb. 2: California W, 78-74; UA hit 13 of 14 shots at end of first half
• Feb. 16: Washington State W, 76-72; UA 7-7 free throws in last five minutes
• Feb. 25: UCLA W, 65-63; Kyle Fogg (20 points, 9 rebounds and strong defense)
• Who: Arizona at ASU
• When: 1:30 p.m. Sunday
• TV: FSAZ