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October 21, 2014

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UCLA primed for NCAA Tournament after beating Arizona in Pac-12 title game

Kyle Anderson steps up for Bruins in Las Vegas a week after season-altering loss

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Julie Jacobson / AP

UCLA players celebrate with the championship trophy after beating Arizona 75-71 in the championship game of the NCAA Pac-12 conference college basketball tournament, Saturday, March 15, 2014, in Las Vegas.

Two days ago in the Pac-12 tournament quarterfinals, UCLA’s Kyle Anderson skied over an Oregon defender under the basket and slammed down a dunk with his right hand.

Anderson’s teammates swarmed to his side as he flexed and shouted.

“This is my time,” Anderson yelled loud enough for several rows of fans at the MGM Grand Garden Arena to hear despite the raucous environment.

It’s now apparent they should have taken the declaration as a threat, not a celebration. Anderson’s time came Saturday afternoon when he earned Most Outstanding Player honors as UCLA upset Arizona 75-71 in the Pac-12 tournament championship game.

The sophomore scored 21 points with 15 rebounds, five assists and just one turnover, a stat line Arizona coach Sean Miller believed he had never seen from a point guard before. Miller suggested those who plan to fill out NCAA Tournament brackets next week should continue to heed Anderson’s words.

“I’ve got news for whoever draws them in the NCAA Tournament: With Kyle Anderson and Jordan Adams, good luck,” Miller said.

As the nation’s most efficient defensive team, the Wildcats only gave up 75 points twice all season. Both were against the Bruins, who fell 79-75 at home to the Wildcats in January before avenging the loss in Las Vegas.

“Beating them gives these guys the momentum and confidence knowing we can not just play with anybody, but we can beat anybody,” UCLA coach Steve Alford said.

And score on anybody. After Arizona held its first two Pac-12 tournament opponents to 27 percent shooting, UCLA more than doubled that in the first half of the title game.

The Bruins led by as many as 11 points with the Wildcats shocked at the sight of someone solving their impenetrable defense. But Arizona responded with a 12-2 stretch to make the score a manageable 43-40 at halftime.

The run coincided with the only two minutes Anderson, who had 11 first-half points and six rebounds, spent on the bench all afternoon.

“We played one of the best defensive teams in the country, one of the best rebounding teams in the country,” Anderson said. “So I knew I would have to do a little scoring and a little rebounding.”

He also had to keep his team poised in the second half after the Wildcats reinvigorated their defense and followed the offensive lead of Pac-12 regular-season Player of the Year Nick Johnson, who had a game-high 22 points.

Arizona thrice took a one- or two-point lead, but it never lasted more than a minute. Anderson was always the catalyst to get it back.

Johnson made a slick pass to set up freshman Aaron Gordon — 11 points, eight rebounds and eight assists — for a layup with 4:56 remaining to give the Wildcats a 68-66 lead. Anderson got fouled two possessions later and made both free throws — he sank 10 of 13 for the game — to tie it back up.

From there, a beautiful game turned sloppy. The two teams went scoreless over the next three minutes until the Bruins forced a turnover and called a timeout.

“I come into the huddle and I said, ‘how about money?’” Alford recalled. “And these guys were cheering and jumping around, so when you have a team that’s excited to run something, you’re crazy as a coach not to at least try it.”

“Money” was a play that could take advantage of Arizona’s justified fixation on Anderson with 45 seconds to go. Anderson dribbled to the right, where a ball screen forced Johnson to sag off Adams, a sophomore guard.

As soon as Anderson saw Johnson lean his way, he flung a pass to Adams on the left behind the 3-point line. Anderson knew Adams, who finished with 19 points, wouldn’t miss the wide-open, game-winning look.

“It reminded me back to the day when we played them at Pauley Pavilion,” Adams said. “I missed that shot, in and out, and that shot haunted me. I always told myself if I got another chance, I would knock it down.”

The loss was the Bruins’ first in the Pac-12, but it wasn’t until the sixth and final defeat when they now say they turned their season around. In UCLA’s final regular-season game last Saturday, it got blown out 73-55 at lowly Washington State.

Alford told his team he was throwing out the tape of the game when they got back to Los Angeles. They would focus on the Pac-12 tournament instead of what went wrong, an approach that’s worked heading into the next big event.

“We got our edge back after the Washington State game,” Alford said. “Right now, we need to stay hot.”

Case Keefer can be reached at 948-2790 or [email protected]. Follow Case on Twitter at twitter.com/casekeefer.

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