Pac-12 Final takeaways: Arizona edges UCLA late to claim title

LAS VEGAS — UCLA’s classic bold white and powder blue font looked bright against Arizona’s blue and red trim for a Pac-12 final that felt like a fitting conclusion to the level of elite that each team played this season.

The contest even lived up to the heavyweight turnover that had come, with a remarkable 17 lead changes before the second-seeded Wildcats outlasted the Bruins 61-59 in the dying embers to capture the conference tournament for the second year in a row.

That’s not to say it was the sharpest of games to begin with.

Both teams started the game a combined 2-for-16 from the field in the first six minutes and also committed five turnovers. But as a fight was being traded from one of the many blackjack tables around the Strip, fortunes turned and both teams began hitting the haystacks.

UCLA even keeping it close spoke to the strength and competitiveness of a veteran-laden team that was missing two key starters. Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year Jaylen Clark is out for the year with a lower leg injury suffered in the team’s regular-season finale win against Arizona a week, while conference freshman Adem Bona was confined to street clothes after injuring himself. left shoulder in the semifinal against Oregon on Friday.

“We always play hard,” head coach Mick Cronin said. “We made too many defensive mistakes and gave up too many rebounds in the second half. But that’s how we do things. We compete, it’s five-on-five and we don’t accept that somebody was out, so you’re supposed to. lose”.

Bona’s main backup, redshirt senior Kenneth Nwuba, who has dealt with lingering injuries, grabbed two offensive rebounds and took charge early on to set the tone. Freshman Mac Etienne chipped in with seven rebounds in 16 minutes as both fouled out with more than four minutes remaining.

On the other hand, his court defense was especially appreciated, holding Wildcats big man Oumar Ballo to just two points at halftime (he finished with 13) and making him less of a factor than he was. I expected. It didn’t help that the Gonzaga transfer was also dealing with injuries to both of his very sticky hands.

Guard Kerr Kriisa also did what he could with a battered shoulder, but wasn’t nearly as effective as he was in the early January win over UCLA in Tucson. The junior from Estonia knocked down a 3 late in the stretch, but finished with just six points and zero assists before fouling out with 1:49 left.

Fellow guard Courtney Ramey hit just one shot all night, but saved the best for last, knocking down a 3-pointer with 18 seconds left to regain the lead for good and allow her to back down the court indicating who had ice in his veins. Pelle Larsson, who gave the ‘Cats their first lead in the second half with nine to play on an off-center three, also delighted the thousands of Arizona fans who turned the building into McKale North.

First-team all-conference selection Azuolas Tubelis was more than capable of shouldering the scoring load for Arizona, having spent most of the season leading the Pac-12 in points. He finished the night with 19 to go with 14 rebounds and consistently found success in the mid-range.

Opposite number Jaime Jaquez Jr., who was named West Player of the Year over Tubelis, worked on both ends and looked crushed after the final buzzer that he couldn’t hand UCLA the its first conference tournament crown since 2014. Finished with a double-double, but missed his final seven shots and had several good looks amid a nearly three-minute scoring drought for the team to end the match

“I thought I had a lot of great looks, but I just missed,” Jaquez said.

Fellow senior Tyger Campbell, who hadn’t missed more than two free throws in a game since mid-January, also had a chance to at least send the game to overtime after getting fouled late while on to the bonus He shot calmly in the first but couldn’t connect on the second to tie the game in the final six seconds, spoiling what had been a stellar outing for the point guard who finished with 16 points on the night.

Freshman Amari Bailey also had another coming-out party for Las Vegas, finishing with a game-high 19 and launching a vicious dunk in the middle of the lane that was tragically taken away by a controversial offensive foul.

The Bruins now await their fate with the NCAA Tournament on Selection Sunday, but could see the loss hurt their chances of earning the No. 1 seed in the West and remaining in the Pacific Time Zone until the Final Four, including a regional in two weeks at T-Mobile Arena.

At worst, Cronin’s team will find itself on a 2-man line that it will likely share with an Arizona team that has been at the forefront of the conference race for the past few years.

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