With their McKale Center stage illuminated as it only can be during a white-out game, the No. 6 Arizona Wildcats had a chance to turn a few more heads nationally Thursday.
Before their 84-73 loss to UCLA, the Wildcats trotted out before a sellout crowd and a national, prime time ESPN2 audience. They had a chance to move up in the Top 25 polls, with Duke having been blown out a day earlier at Miami, a team the Wildcats beat easily last month.
Then the ball went up, and came down, with a thud. Twelve times in UA's first 13 field goal attempts, the ball did not go in.
Layups, short jumpers, midrange shots. At one point, after UA fell behind 21-5 after eight minutes, the Wildcats even missed three shots on one possession, with a putback attempt by Kaleb Tarczewski spinning around the rim, only to drop to the floor again.
The misses sent a shock wave into the Wildcats they never fully recovered from. Arizona cut UCLA's lead to five points in the first half and four in the second, but never managed to pull the game out or even get closer after so many nail-biting finishes before that always seemed to work out in the end.
"I never felt good watching our offense," UA coach Sean Miller said, calling the comeback attempts "fool's gold" because Arizona's offensive rhythm, its passing, its patience and maybe even its spirit weren't quite right.
So today, instead of being 17-1 and possibly heading for a Top 3 or 4 ranking, the Wildcats are 16-2 and already two games behind Oregon in the Pac-12 race. They are 4-2 and tied for third place, with UCLA having moved to second place at 6-1, and 16-4 overall.
While it's still only January, the Wildcats' Pac-12 position could be of concern because the Ducks don't have to play UCLA or Arizona again.
"We hurt ourselves tonight, but I don't think the conference champion is only going to have two losses," Miller said. "There's a lot of basketball left to be played."
But suddenly, Arizona has an urgency to its season. And, at least on Thursday, urgency didn't work out so well for the Wildcats.
Their offense never completely returned to normal after early shooting trouble, and Arizona wound up shooting only 38.4 percent from the field and a season-worst 20.8 percent from three-point range.
Miller said the Wildcats became too individualistic at that point, with everyone trying to cut the Bruins' lead by themselves. Forward Solomon Hill, who had 13 points and 10 rebounds for the Wildcats, indicated that was never going to cut it.
"We have to get back to passing and screening," Hill said. "We kind of got out of rhythm. They executed in transition and they made us pay for it."
UCLA actually had just four more points off turnovers than Arizona (21-17), but Miller said it felt like every one of UA's turnovers was unforced.
The Wildcats, of course, had many other issues. They were out-rebounded 45-44 against a physically smaller and shorthanded team, allowed UCLA to shoot 47.8 percent and, in a particular surprise, had their bench players outscored 25-12 by UCLA's reserves.
The Bruins were not only going without starting center Travis Wear in the second half, after he was found to have suffered concussion-like symptoms, but they also missed guard Jordan Adams because of cramps briefly in the second half when UA went on a 10-0 run.
Still, just about every time the Wildcats cut the deficit to within two baskets, UCLA had point guard Larry Drew II pulling out another of his nine assists or Shabazz Muhammad piling up more of his team-high 23 points.
Muhammad had said earlier this week that he would take it upon himself to make sure UCLA won, though Hill said the Wildcats did not necessarily suffer because of any desperation the Bruins were playing with.
"We just didn't make shots," Hill said.
After trailing 40-30 at halftime, the Wildcats used their 10-0 run midway through the second half to cut UCLA's lead to just 55-51.
Later, with four minutes left, the Wildcats still trailed by the same 10-digit margin that they did at halftime. But Mark Lyons scored off Kevin Parrom's steal and assist while the Wildcats turned quickly around for another two points when Brandon Ashley blocked Adams and Nick Johnson recovered the ball and made a layup.
But Arizona never cut it any closer the rest of the way.
"It was very frustrating, especially in a big game like this because everybody wants to contribute and play well," said Parrom, who managed seven points, six rebounds and four assists off the bench. "But we get another shot at them so we've got to be prepared."
• What: USC at No. 6 Arizona
• When: 5 p.m. Saturday
• TV: ESPNU; 1290-AM, 107.5-FM, 990-AM (Spanish)