Two weeks ago, UCLA was sliding away from the top of the national rankings. Now, the Bruins are on the verge of being awarded the No. 1 seed in the West regional of the NCAA tournament.
All the eighth-ranked Bruins need to win the Pacific-10 Conference is a victory over visiting Arizona State today or a win by second-ranked Arizona at No. 10 Southern Cal earlier that day.The depressed state the Bruins found themselves in after losing to top-ranked Duke on March 1 - their third consecutive defeat - is nothing more now than a distant memory.
"That's the kind of basketball we played earlier in the year and that's the kind of basketball we hope to play the rest of the season," UCLA coach Jim Harrick said after the Bruins held off second-ranked Arizona 89-81 Thursday night for their third straight victory.
"We've got to beat Arizona State, we don't want to tie (for the Pac-10 title)," Harrick added. "We cannot tie. We CANNOT tie."
By winning, the Bruins (24-4, 15-2) clinched at least a tie for the Pac-10 championship and officially ended Arizona's four-year reign.
Southern Cal (22-5, 14-3) took over undisputed possession of second place in the Pac-10 with an 81-66 victory over Arizona State (18-12, 9-8) on Thursday night.
If UCLA and Southern Cal finish tied for the Pac-10 crown, the Trojans probably would be the West's No. 1 seed because they swept the Bruins this season.
Despite leading Arizona 66-48 with 10:45 remaining, the Bruins were pushed to the limit by the Wildcats.
Arizona (24-5, 13-4) went on a 26-10 run which Matt Othick capped by making a 3-point shot with 3:38 left, making it 76-74. But the Bruins were up to the task, outscoring the Wildcats 13-7 after that to win going away.
"I thought we showed a lot of character," said Don MacLean, who led the Bruins with 28 points. "We didn't choke, we got the job done."
Perhaps MacLean was thinking about the 75-65 loss to Duke, when the Blue Devils outscored the Bruins 16-4 down the stretch. Or the first-round game of last year's NCAA tournament, when the Bruins had a bad last five minutes and lost to underdog Penn State 74-69.
Actually, it wasn't a matter of UCLA playing poorly that allowed the Wildcats to catch up; the Bruins committed only nine turnovers all night. It was a matter of Arizona doing the job.
"They hit some big shots," MacLean said. "I thought we did a good job keeping our composure and then ran away with it at the end."
Tracy Murray, who had 23 points and nine rebounds for UCLA, made a jumper with 3:13 remaining to give the Bruins a four-point lead.
After Arizona missed a shot, Tyus Edney made another jumper with 2:10 remaining to make it 80-74. The Wildcats then turned the ball over and UCLA was in command.
Arizona won the Pac-10 crown outright in three of the last four seasons and tied with Oregon State for first place two years ago. The Bruins last won the crown in 1987.
The Wildcats had won five consecutive games and 14 of 15 before Thursday night. Sean Rooks led Arizona with 23 points and 10 rebounds and Othick added 17 points.