No. 2-ranked UCLA has overcome losing top talent to work its way into the Pac-12 tournament championship game against No. 8 Arizona on Saturday night at Las Vegas.
The title game will be a rematch of the final contest of the regular season when UCLA honored seniors Tyger Campbell, Jaime Jaquez Jr. and David Singleton before posting an 82-73 victory at home over Arizona last Saturday.
But the Bruins lost Pac-12 defensive player of the year Jaylen Clark in that game with a lower left leg injury, and the hard-nosed junior didn’t even make the trip to the desert for the conference tournament. In Friday’s 75-56 semifinal victory over Oregon, more trouble arose when conference freshman of the year Adem Bona departed for good with a left shoulder injury.
Bona was injured with just over 16 minutes remaining, with no update on his status in advance of Saturday’s game. If they are without Bona, the top-seeded Bruins (29-4) will have to lean on reserve big men Mac Etienne and Kenneth Nwuba, who has been struggling with a sore hip the past two months.
After a three-minute scoring drought following Bona’s departure, the Bruins gathered themselves before racing to the victory behind a late push from Campbell and Jaquez. Campbell scored 16 of his career-best 28 points after Bona’s injury, while Jaquez had 18 points and 10 rebounds.
A conference tournament title isn’t the only prize on the line Saturday for UCLA, which has a 12-game winning streak. A victory could land the Bruins a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament as long as the committee doesn’t dock them for their injury concerns.
“Guys gave us big minutes off the bench, and we just worry about defense,” said UCLA coach Mick Cronin, who reminded his reserves that their chance to shine could come in March.
“We worry about playing defense, we worry about playing smart, and the ball is eventually going to go in.”
Second-seeded Arizona (27-6) earned a 78-59 semifinal victory over Arizona State, exacting some revenge after the Wildcats fell 89-88 at home on Feb. 25 when the Sun Devils’ Desmond Cambridge Jr. drilled a buzzer-beater from beyond half court.
Arizona left nothing to chance this time as Azuolas Tubelis had 17 points and Oumar Ballo had 14 points with 10 rebounds. Cedric Henderson Jr. also had 14 points for the Wildcats, who had 23 assists to tie a Pac-12 tournament record.
“My thing was to have you guys not show the half-court shot anymore,” Tubelis said on Pac-12 Network after the victory. “We played hard. We executed our game plan really well, I think. Shots went in, in the end, and that’s what we do. That’s what Arizona basketball is about.”
After they built a 22-3 record through Feb. 9 on the back of a seven-game winning streak, the Wildcats had a bumpy ride down the stretch by going 3-3 to close the Pac-12 regular-season.
Included in the seven-game winning streak was Arizona’s 58-52 home victory over UCLA on Jan. 21 when Ballo had 16 points and Tubelis had 14 points and 10 rebounds. The Wildcats, ranked No. 11 at the time, ended the 14-game winning streak of the then-No. 5 Bruins.
When UCLA won the regular-season finale, they received 22 points and 10 rebounds from Jaquez while defeating Arizona.
–Field Level Media