UCLA fails to hold momentum, falls to Arizona in Pac-12 tournament title game

Arizona's Azuolas Tubelis drives between UCLA's Jaime Jaquez Jr. (24) and Tyger Campbell.
Arizona’s Azuolas Tubelis drives between UCLA’s Jaime Jaquez Jr. and Tyger Campbell during the first half of the Wildcats’ 84-76 win Saturday in Las Vegas.
(John Locher / Associated Press)

After all the taunts from the Arizona fans, the repeated “U of A!” chants that filled an arena awash in red and white, UCLA wanted the final say.

The Bruins looked like they might get it early in the second half of Saturday’s Pac-12 tournament championship. Their shots were falling and they matched the Wildcats’ toughness while not letting a pronounced size disadvantage bother them. When UCLA’s Johnny Juzang buried a three-pointer, extending his team’s lead to 12 points, what amounted to a home crowd for the Wildcats was silenced.

But the decibel level rose, slowly at first, before building to a crescendo with a flurry of Arizona backdoor layups and three-pointers. Meanwhile, the Bruins went cold and their primary two big men couldn’t do much to stop the avalanche of points their team was giving up while stuck on the bench in foul trouble.


Cal State Fullerton claimed it first berth in the NCAA tournament since 2018 after beating Long Beach State in the Big West Conference final.

March 12, 2022

Arizona rode the momentum for an 84-76 victory, the top-seeded Wildcats pulling away from the second-seeded Bruins for their first Pac-12 tournament title since 2018 in a game featuring Final Four intensity.

“Arizona was the tougher team down the stretch,” coach Mick Cronin said after his UCLA team had 11 shots blocked, including eight in the second half. “That’s where the game was decided; they were more physical. Our defense left a lot to be desired, to say the very least. Hopefully, we’ll watch film and learn a lot about what it takes to be a great team.”

With No. 13 UCLA (25-7) trying to rally in the final minute, trailing by only four points, three plays illustrated the No. 2 Wildcats’ superiority. Juzang drove before his shot met the outstretched arm of Christian Koloko, the Wildcats’ 7-foot-1 center, and was swatted away. On UCLA’s following possession, Oumar Ballo, another Arizona 7-footer, stepped out to the perimeter to block a Jules Bernard three-pointer.

UCLA's Peyton Watson (23) blocks a shot by Arizona's Bennedict Mathurin (0) during the first half Saturday.
(John Locher / Associated Press)

Finally, Koloko blocked a three-pointer by Cody Riley in the final seconds before racing to the other end of the court to snatch the rim in celebration as the clock ran out. Koloko collected four blocks and Ballo had six for the Wildcats (31-3), who won every battle at the rim late in the game.

“The Art of War,” Cronin said, referencing the Chinese military book by Sun Tzu. “There’s always a way to use the other team’s strength against them, so you’ve got to pass the ball. We were minus-11 in assists to Arizona, so we didn’t get the job done; I didn’t get that across to the team, so that’s my fault that we got 11 shots blocked.”


After averaging 24.8 points over his previous four games, UCLA guard Jaime Jaquez Jr. was considerably less effective against Arizona’s length. At one point midway through the second half, he made a nice post move only for Ballo to rotate over to block his shot. Jaquez had another shot blocked by Koloko with 1½ minutes left, later blaming himself for not seeking open teammates.

“I didn’t pass it out as I should have,” said Jaquez, who finished with 18 points while making six of 17 shots. “Just a couple times I went up, got blocked, should’ve passed it out.”

Bernard continued his recent scoring surge with 19 points, Juzang added 16 and Tyger Campbell had 14 for the Bruins, who shot only 37.1% after halftime and made just five of 22 three-pointers (22.7%) for the game.

Bennedict Mathurin finished with 27 points while becoming the tournament’s most outstanding player for Arizona, which is assured of a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. UCLA was unable to elevate its position after most bracket analysts had projected the Bruins as a No. 4 seed before the game.

They looked like they might be on the verge of boosting their stock early in the second half.

UCLA's Johnny Juzang (3) falls to the floor while scrambling for a ball with Arizona's Dalen Terry (4) during the first half.
(John Locher / Associated Press)

After Bernard absorbed an elbow to the face from Koloko and was awarded two free throws, the Bruins appeared ready to deliver a knockout blow. Their lead reached 53-41 when Juzang buried a corner three-pointer.


But Arizona wasn’t about to go quietly, the Wildcats making two three-pointers while rolling off eight straight points to spark a 15-2 run. UCLA found itself turning to seldom-used forward Kenneth Nwuba after Myles Johnson picked up his fourth foul with 13:05 left, joining Riley on the bench with the same predicament.

The Wildcats commenced another surge, scoring the next seven points to go ahead 56-55 on Koloko’s three-point play after he was fouled on a layup and made the resulting free throw.

“They got easy buckets at the rim,” Bernard said, “and when you’re trying to make a run, it’s demoralizing.”

In a good sign for the Bruins, Juzang recaptured his shooting form after some recent struggles in his return from a sprained ankle. The junior guard made seven of 15 shots, including two of four three-pointers, ending the first half with a highlight play.

Juzang took an inbounds pass with two seconds left and rose for a three-pointer that pushed the Bruins into a 40-35 lead. He snarled and shimmied before celebrating with his teammates on their way to the locker room.

UCLA's Johnny Juzang, left, and Cody Riley, right, try to contain Arizona's Christian Koloko during the first half.
(John Locher / Associated Press)

The cheering would soon belong exclusively to the Wildcats, the Bruins left to reflect on what they need for better results in the weeks ahead.


“I told our guys in the locker room, the only way we’re gonna learn from this is if we can look in the mirror and admit what happened,” Cronin said. “And that run, whatever it was, we gotta admit.

“Last year, we were the tougher team in March for a lot of games and that’s why we went where we went. If we learn that lesson, then today will be worth it.”