An Air Force pilot proposed to his girlfriend on midcourt at McKale Center early in the first half Saturday night. She said yes, and boy, did the ol’ place light up.
After that, UCLA blew out all the candles.
You can cut through all the statistical hieroglyphics that pollute college basketball, and you can forget the percentages — I mean, Arizona actually shot better than the Bruins, 51 percent to 45 percent — but it came down to hustle and muscle.
“They were the bigger, stronger, tougher, more physical team going after the ball,” said Arizona coach Sean Miller.
Over the last 40 years, nobody has ever accused a UCLA basketball team of winning a street fight, but on Saturday night at McKale, the Bruins were looking for trouble, and they came to the right place. They won 77-72, silencing the loudest crowd of the season, and it’s astonishing that the Wildcats had a final shot to force overtime.
It was an airball, taken by senior Kadeem Allen, of all people. Allen’s right pinky was broken so badly a week earlier that you wondered how he could even hold a spoon in that hand, let alone shoot a basketball accurately from 20 feet out.
About 10 minutes after Allen was saluted on Senior Night, he walked through a scrum of UCLA players and Los Angeles reporters en route to the training room, holding his right hand tenderly, accompanied by trainer Justin Kokoskie.
It wasn’t certain if the pained expression on his face was from the finger or the Senior Night loss.
In some seasons, you are rewarded by an act of the basketball gods, one that places that overtime-forcing shot in the hands of Salim Stoudamire or Steve Kerr. But on the most electric atmosphere at McKale Center in years, the ball rotated to Allen.
“We’ve won seven in a row on great Senior Nights,” Miller said. “A number of times we cut down the nets, and we could’ve tonight.”
Instead, Miller was left to damage-control. Yes, the Wildcats can still share the Pac-12 title with Oregon by beating the Sun Devils . And yes, there’s still March and the promise of another shot at UCLA and Oregon.
But, really, is that promising at all? The Ducks have all that veteran firepower, and now UCLA has a defense to go with the nation’s highest-scoring offense.
If the Bruins’ Thomas Welsh wasn’t the best player on the court Saturday, it was Bryce Alford. And if it was neither Welsh nor Alford, it was Lonzo Ball or T.J. Leaf. Sometimes it seemed like it was five against one. Somehow, Arizona kept it close.
The Bruins won with defense, with an old 3-2 zone that stopped Arizona in its tracks.
“People have been killing us on our defense all year,” said Bruins guard Bryce Alford. “But any time you get (criticized) like that you work on it. I think we’ve been pretty damn good.”
When the game turned from a six-point Arizona lead to an 11-point UCLA lead, Arizona missed seven consecutive 3-point shots. At that time, it was 3 for 17 from 3-point distance (17 percent). The only game the Wildcats were worse from 3-point distance was 1 for 8 against Gonzaga.
“I thought we did a good job of making them stand around (on offense),” Alford said. “In the second half, it took some air out of the ball.”
Four times during Alford’s brief discussion with reporters, he mentioned his team’s “basketball IQ” and how smart the Bruins are.
Was it the X and O work of the UCLA coaches that limited Arizona guard Kobi Simmons to one point? He scored a game-high 20 at Pauley Pavilion last month. And was it a Steve Alford scheme that made it seem as if Lauri Markkanen had never seen a zone defense?
Markkanen scored 18 points at UCLA. On Saturday he scuffled, missing all three of his 3-point attempts, unable to get an open look when Arizona desperately needed one in the final 10 minutes. Only in losses to Gonzaga and Oregon had Markkanen gone 0 for 3 on 3-point shots.
In effect, UCLA beat Arizona at its own game. The Bruins set the second-half tempo and limited the Wildcats to just 29 possessions, five below Arizona’s slowest-in-the-league pace. UCLA had a mere 66 possessions overall, its fewest in conference games.
“If you had told me we’d hold them to 77 points, I’d have signed up for it,” said Miller.
Arizona is 70-2 at McKale Center over the last four years, but it’s odd how the “2” seems to linger more than the “70.” You exit Senior Night sorrowful, unable to celebrate a 26-4 record.
Before 14,644 fans departed McKale, Miller grabbed the PA microphone and spoke solemnly.
“I think UCLA has a chance to do some special things,” he said. “But so do we.”
But that’s a story for another day. On Saturday, as the cleanup crew began its late-night job at McKale, the Wildcats were left among the debris.