The visitor’s locker room door opened slowly, as if the No. 1 Arizona Wildcats were decompressing a bit after a nerve-jangling game at Pauley Pavilion on Thursday night.
The first three men to exit were Chris Mills, Gilbert Arenas and Luke Walton. Just like old times. They walked into a sea of UA fans crowded onto the playing surface. Happy faces everywhere.
Mills, Arenas and Walton all know what it’s like to sting UCLA on Nell and John Wooden Court. Arenas scored 30 there in 2001; Mills 27 in 1993; and Walton helped No. 2 Arizona beat up the Bruins there 87-52 in 2003.
But this time the names have changed. This time it was Gabe York, a sophomore from nearby Orange County, who scored the game’s two most important points, free throws, with 12.4 seconds remaining. This time it was Nick Johnson, who is becoming Old Reliable, scoring 22 when anything less would’ve sent the nation’s top-ranked team reeling.
This time, rather than simply manifesting their edge in manpower and quickness over the Bruins, UA won with a comeback, of all things, finding itself just in time after blowing a 13-point lead in what seemed like 13 seconds.
The Wildcats won 79-75 after showing their vulnerability, but that didn’t seem to bother them a bit.
“We were under-aggressive, we got in foul trouble and we stagnated,” said UA freshman Aaron Gordon. “But it was a good experience because we realized you can’t let up against anybody.”
This isn’t a vintage UCLA team, but it is one that was leading the Pac-12 in shooting (52.7 percent). You’d figure that if you commit 17 turnovers against the Bruins, as Arizona did, you don’t have a chance.
But on Thursday the Wildcats played tenacious defense, limiting the Bruins to .400 percent shooting, their second-lowest figure of the season.
“We have defenders one through five, and then some,” said Gordon. “That was the difference.”
A year ago, UCLA’s Jordan Adams helped the Bruins sweep three games against Arizona by scoring 24 points in the Pac-12 tournament semifinals. On Thursday, Adams was 4 for 15 from the field, missing all but one of his six three-point attempts.
“He hasn’t had someone 6-9 guarding him very often,” said Gordon.
Under first-year coach Steve Alford, the Bruins aren’t ranked and probably won’t be the rest of the season, but when their gears mesh they can beat anybody in the Top 25. It’s also a team that could lose to anyone with an RPI from 75 to 100.
UCLA can break down, and with 5:10 remaining on Thursday it was on the side of the road with the hood up and an overheated engine. Arizona led 68-57. The Bruins were shooting .362 and Arizona .563.
It was all over – but then again, it wasn’t.
Arizona didn’t score on any of its next six possessions. The next thing you know, the Bruins were leading 71-70.
Coach Sean Miller was about the only man from Arizona not freaking out.
“He calmed us down,’’ said York. “We just had to grind it out.’’
Pauley Pavilion isn’t a willful, desperate arena like Colorado’s Coors Special Events Center, or even one like ASU’s Wells Fargo Arena can be when Arizona is in Tempe. But in the final four minutes on Thursday, Pauley Pavilion might as well have been Duke’s Cameron Indoor Arena.
But even a rousing finish by the Bruins’ largest crowd of the season couldn’t stall Arizona’s two-minute drill. Remarkably, the Wildcats scored on its final seven possessions in the game’s last 2:01.
That’s how you stay No. 1.
“I didn’t expect anything less than a close game, I sure didn’t expect a blowout,” said Gordon, “especially at Pauley Pavilion.”
The Wildcats shot above 50 percent (their average is .485) because UCLA lacks quickness and size inside. Kaleb Tarczewski didn’t miss a shot, making all six of his field-goal attempts. In the end, that was as meaningful as anything.
The Bruins’ zone defense didn’t have any teeth to it. Not like one of those Syracuse, man-in-your-face zones, or Jerry Tarkanian’s old UNLV amoeba zones that would put fear in your eyes.
On Thursday, when Arizona absolutely positively had to get a bucket, it got one against minimal resistance.
It now appears as if the Wildcats will remain No. 1 until at least Jan. 23, when Colorado plays in Tucson. That’s good for the ego but not for those with superstitious bones.
The last five No. 1 teams on Jan. 9 all failed to reach the Final Four.
Last year, Duke, which was No.1 on Jan. 9, lost to Louisville in the Elite Eight.
In 2012, No. 1 Syracuse was eliminated by Ohio State in the Elite Eight.
In 2011, No. 1 Duke lost to Arizona (remember?) in the Sweet 16.
In 2010, No. 1 Kansas lost in a second-round game to Northern Iowa.
And in 2009, No. 1 Pitt lost to Villanova in the Elite Eight.
Where Arizona goes from here is the great unknown, but even those with superstitious bones wouldn’t have traded the UA’s comeback victory just to get the Big Target off their team’s shoulder.
Arizona had won just once (2010) at Pauley Pavilion since 2005. It had almost forgotten what it was like in the days of Arenas, Mills and Walton.
On Thursday, it got that feeling back.