UCLA can't protect 19-point lead as upset bid fades in loss to Arizona

UCLA's Adem Bona (3) starts a fast break after stealing the ball from Arizona's Oumar Ballo.

Farewell. Sayonara. See ya.

Looking beaten for 30 minutes, Arizona ran hated nemesis UCLA off the court in their final game as Pac-12 rivals at the McKale Center on Saturday afternoon.

Trailing by 19 points in the first half and 15 early in the second, the No. 12 Wildcats rallied furiously for a 77-71 victory to halt the Bruins’ two-game winning streak.

Arizona took its first lead since the game’s opening minutes on a driving layup by Pelle Larsson that gave the Wildcats a 65-64 advantage with 4:52 left.

UCLA (8-11 overall, 3-5 Pac-12) crumbled amid a series of empty possessions after holding a 53-40 lead with 10:58 to go. Arizona closed the game on a 37-18 run.

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The Bruins were within 73-71 before a Larsson put-back rolled in and UCLA went on to miss four three-pointers on a possession to wipe out its comeback hopes. Backup center Kenneth Nwuba also missed a put-back dunk that could have given UCLA a lead with 4:18 left.

Sebastian Mack repeatedly attacked the basket on his way to 21 points, and Lazar Stefanovic added 17. Larsson finished with 22 points for the Wildcats (14-4, 5-2).

Looking outclassed for most of the game, Arizona rolled off a 10-2 run to get its once-silent fans rocking. K.J. Lewis and Kylan Boswell made three-pointers and UCLA’s Adem Bona was called for goaltending to help the Wildcats pull to within 55-50.

Things deteriorated further for the Bruins when Bona was called for his fourth foul with 8:01 left while fighting for a rebound.

UCLA coach Mick Cronin contributed to the onslaught by complaining about a non-call on a Stefanovic jumper that was blocked, leading to a technical foul. Larsson made both free throws he was awarded as well as two more for getting fouled on a drive to the basket, pulling the Wildcats into a 60-60 tie.

Not content with his team’s nine-point halftime lead, Mack came out aggressive in scoring the first six points of the second half. He made a free throw, banked in a running jumper and buried a three-pointer to give the Bruins a 43-28 advantage with 18:05 left.

UCLA coach Mick Cronin yells during Saturday's loss to Arizona.
UCLA coach Mick Cronin yells during Saturday's loss to Arizona. (Darryl Webb / Associated Press)

This was unlikely to be the teams’ last meeting here. Both coaches have said they would like to preserve the rivalry even with UCLA headed to the Big Ten and Arizona bound for the Big 12 starting next season. The biggest holdups will be figuring out their new schedules and not overloading themselves with too many difficult nonconference games.

But this is a matchup worth preserving considering the rivals’ hatred for each other and classic matchups over the years.

The Arizona students unfurled their usual vitriol toward the Bruins, booing them every time they took and left the court pregame. One student held up a sign poking fun at UCLA’s recent blowout loss to Utah, the message reading, “Imagine losing 44 to 90.”

For much of the first half, it looked as if the Wildcats might absorb that kind of beatdown.

Playing free and confident, UCLA unleashed its best 12 minutes of the season in building a 32-13 lead to open the game. The Bruins bottled up one of the nation’s top offenses and showed no hesitancy whenever they had the ball.

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After Stefanovic came up with a steal and was fouled driving to the basket, his two free throws capped a 13-0 run by the Bruins that put them ahead by 19. There was audible unease in the sellout crowd.

Then the Bruins started playing tight, with two quick Mack turnovers fueling an 11-1 run by the Wildcats that had their fans standing and roaring for the first time.

Bona stemmed the run with back-to-back baskets, helping the Bruins avoid a total collapse while taking a 37-28 halftime lead built in part on the strength of making six of nine three-pointers. Stefanovic made all three of his three-pointers on the way to 13 points by the game’s midpoint and Will McClendon buried the only one he took.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.