Arizona Coach Lute Olson, having seen so many easy victories for his top-ranked Wildcats recently, welcomed a chance for his players to feel some late-game pressure.
Arizona led UCLA by as many as 15 points in the first half Sunday, but the Bruins rallied to briefly take the lead in the second half before the Wildcats pulled away for an 86-74 victory in Pacific 10 play.
"It was great to get pushed because if you don't get into those late-game situations, you don't know how to handle it later on in the season," Olson said after the Wildcats improved their record to 18-1 overall and 8-0 in the conference.
In Arizona's first seven Pac-10 victories, the Wildcats won by an average of 30 points, including a 44-point win over USC Thursday night. Arizona's previous closest margin in the conference was a 16-point win at Oregon.
It looked to be much the same Sunday, as Arizona scored on 17 of its first 21 possessions to assume a 15-point edge and take a 45-34 halftime lead. But the transition game suddenly swung in favor of UCLA, which used most of the second half to battle back.
"Most of the buckets we got in the early going were the quick ones on the transition, and they got those in the second half," Olson said. "(UCLA is) a great transition team, and we weren't stopping that."
The Bruins cut the deficit to 56-50 with nine straight points early in the second half. The teams traded buckets, and a three-point play by Dave Immel cut the margin to 58-55. The lead remained at three until Kevin Walker scored five straight points for the Bruins, giving UCLA its only lead, 66-64, with 5:52 remaining.
Sean Elliott tied the score seconds later to start an 8-0 burst, which allowed Arizona to regain the lead, 72-66. A three-point shot by Steve Kerr with 1:31 left increased the margin to 79-70 to seal the victory.
UCLA Coach Walt Hazzard, whose team has already lost to No. 2-ranked North Carolina, No. 5 Temple and co-No. 9 Brigham Young, called Arizona his team's toughest opponent this season.
"Arizona is as good as any team we've seen this season," Hazzard said. "I'd vote them No. 1 and Brigham Young No. 2 right now."
Elliott led Arizona with 27 points in what Olson called a sub-par performance.
"You might say, 'He got 27 points, how is that sub-par?' But he was 9 for 17 (from the floor) and that's subpar for him," Olson said. "Sean's timing is still off after his bout with a virus."
Tom Tolbert added 19 points for Arizona, and Anthony Cook had 18 points, 14 coming in the first half when he hit 7 of his first 8 shots. Kerr finished with 13 points.
UCLA (7-10 and 3-4) was led in scoring by Immel with 19 points. Trevor Wilson added 16, Walker 15 and Pooh Richardson 13.
Arizona scored 16 of the first 22 points in the opening 6:02, hitting 7 of its first 11 shots from the floor. Shortly thereafter, the Bruins went 3:56 without scoring, as the Wildcats opened up a 31-16 lead with 8:57 left.