UCLA loses control of destiny when upset bid of Arizona falls short

UCLA forward Kevon Looney drives past Arizona forward Brandon Ashley in the first half of the Pac-12 semifinal game Friday.
(John Locher / Associated Press)

The more time that passed, the more the significance of UCLA’s loss to Arizona on Friday seemed to hit Isaac Hamilton.

“It’s tough,” Hamilton said to a group of reporters, but even after they left his locker in the corner of the room, he couldn’t shake that thought. He sat and stared at the floor and shook his head.

“This is tough,” he whispered to himself. “It’s tough. It’s tough. It’s tough.”


UCLA played as well as it has all season against the top-seeded Wildcats in the Pac-12 tournament semifinals. It wasn’t enough, as No.7Arizona won, 70-64.

Now, the Bruins wait on edge. They must hope the close loss — combined with their body of work this season — is enough to earn an NCAA tournament bid Sunday.

The Bruins (20-13) have the toughest schedule in the Pac-12, a fourth-place finish in the Pac-12 and a resume that shows improvement.

They also have only one win against a team in the Ratings Percentage Index top 25. Does that equal a ticket to March Madness?

Arizona Coach Sean Miller said he didn’t know. “But quality of team, I mean, no question,” he said of the Bruins.

After the game, UCLA’s players were tense but hopeful.

“To know that if we won tonight we were probably a for-sure thing, that’s what hurts the most,” sophomore point guard Bryce Alford said.

But, he added, “I think we’re one of the best teams playing right now, and we’re hot.”

Moments later, senior guard Norman Powell said he didn’t think any bubble team could claim they were better. For that, at least, UCLA can make a case.

The Bruins matched Arizona (30-3) for much of Friday’s game. After an 8-0 Arizona run began the game, UCLA bewildered the Wildcats with a zone defense, and Arizona didn’t score for six minutes.

Before the halftime buzzer, Alford forced a turnover and drilled a three-pointer to tie the score at 27. But there were foul troubles. Hamilton, who scored 36 points against USC on Thursday, would foul out after playing only 15 minutes and scoring six points.

Powell, who finished with 21 points, powered UCLA to a seven-point lead early in the second half. But the defense faltered, and the Bruins couldn’t break through Arizona’s set defense.

The Wildcats scored 15 unanswered points to take an eight-point lead. Brandon Ashley scored a career-high 24 points, and T.J. McConnell had 10 points and 11 assists. And the Bruins victimized themselves with two missed box-outs on free throws.

“Just simple things, you know?” Hamilton said. “And that’s what wins games.”

UCLA can make the case to the committee that, had Kevon Looney been healthy, the outcome might have been different. On Thursday night, doctors told Looney the facial fracture he sustained against USC would keep him out against Arizona.

On Friday morning, though, he got a call that playing would be possible. Just in case, he got fitted for a mask. Around 4 p.m., as the mask was being finished, he got the call. He could play.

The doctors gave him one word of warning, Looney said: “Don’t get hit in the face again.”

The mask limited Looney’s vision, he said, and he was hesitant to dive for loose balls or mix it up inside. He finished with five points and four rebounds, but drained an important three-pointer late in the game.

Arizona, though, answered, and advanced to the final.

After it was over, Alford was asked if, given UCLA’s resume, Sunday would be nerve-racking.

“Yeah,” he sighed, and he didn’t need to say anything more.