Coach Lute Olson has brought the University of Arizona all the way to the top in his first three seasons. From last place to first.
The team that Olson inherited three years ago had finished last in the Pacific 10 with a record of 1-17. In Olson's first season, the Wildcats finished eighth. The next season, they finished third.
And Monday night, with their first victory ever at Pauley Pavilion, Arizona clinched at least a share of the Pac-10 title with an 88-76 victory over UCLA.
Arizona is alone in first place with a record of 14-3 (and 23-7 overall) with one game left, against Arizona State. Washington is second with a record of 12-4 with games remaining against Stanford and Cal.
No wonder Olson was voted Pac-10 Coach of the Year by his fellow coaches. How fitting that the announcement was made the day his team clinched a share of the title.
UCLA dropped into a three-way tie for fourth place at 8-8 (14-12 overall.) Before a home crowd of 8,672, it was UCLA's third loss of the season at Pauley Pavilion.
The loss was especially tough for the Bruins, not only because they are seeking to finish above .500 and defend their NIT title, but because they had played well while the game went back and forth in the second half--only to let it get away down the stretch.
Olson said: "It was a very, very good basketball game. I thought that Walt (Hazzard) and his staff had their team fired up and ready to take care of their own house.
"I would think that he'd be as proud of his team as I am of my team after that game.
"I've been in coaching for 30 years, and there are a lot of special moments to remember, but this will be one of my proudest moments. I am so proud of the way our young team kept scratching and clawing to stay in this game with UCLA playing the way they were and shooting the way they were.
"It would have been easy to Fold, to say tHat this is their night, it's just not our night. But we didn't do that."
The way UCLA was shooting was largely the way junior forward Reggie Miller was shooting. In the first half, he had 21 points, hitting 9 of 13 from the field--some of them amazingly long shots that tend to break the spirit of young players trying to play defense.
In the second half, he was still on the mark (4 of 7), but he just wasn't getting his shots. Arizona switched to a box-and-one defense, and 6-6 guard Craig McMillan did a good defensive job on him.
Miller said that he thought McMillan should have been called for a few more fouls, he was doing such a good job. But then he added, "That's history."
He also said that it hurt to have freshman point guard Pooh Richardson on the bench so much because of his foul trouble. "Then they really had trouble getting me the ball," Miller said.
When the game was on the line in the second half, and especially after Richardson got into foul trouble, the Bruins missed Corey Gaines, who went out in the first half with an injured knee. Gaines had come off the bench to give them a lift at the end of the first half.
When Richardson picked up his fourth foul, with 11:55 to play, it was still a one-point game.
In fact, it was still a one-point game until, with 6:43 to play, senior guard Steve Kerr just beat the 45-second clock with a 25-footer that seemed to bring the Wildcats to life.
Olson described Kerr's shot as a "double-kicker." He explained: "(On) some shots, Steve has to give a little kick to get up it up there. That one took a double kick. It was the kind of shot that Reggie Miller was putting up all night with no kick at all."
Kerr, a junior, has been a key ingredient for the Wildcats all season. He's the point guard; the leader, and against UCLA, one of the most determined.
Kerr was a ballboy for UCLA in his younger years and had hoped to play for the Bruins.
He was instrumental in the streak in which Arizona outscored UCLA, 16-4, to put the game away. With 1:48 to play, Arizona led, 81-70.
In order to break away like that, Arizona had to shoot 75% in the second half. The Wildcats also made 26 of 31 free throws to 8 of 12 for the Bruins.
"They executed well," Hazzard said. "They're a good team. I hope they represent our conference well in the tournament.
"We'll live to fight another day. I'm sorry we didn't win our last game at home. I'm very disappointed about that."
Hazzard said that he would stand by his decision that UCLA will not accept a bid to the NIT unless the Bruins' final overall record is better than .500. The Bruins are one victory away from that goal with two games remaining--Thursday at Oregon State and Saturday at Oregon.
UCLA guard Corey Gaines, who injured his knee toward the end of the first half, is listed as doubtful to return to play this season. . . . Arizona freshman Sean Elliott had his career best with 28 points against UCLA.