Published January 25, 2013
TUCSON, Ariz. – Arizona has dug out of big holes and pulled out close victories all season.
A 16-point first-half deficit to a talented UCLA team was a bit too much to ask.
Unable to hit shots at the rim early or slow the Bruins at all, No. 6 Arizona never fully recovered from a miserable start in an 84-73 loss to UCLA on Thursday night.
"When you're down 21-5 at home, it's not a good feeling," Arizona coach Sean Miller said. "We needed to make some key shots. From a defensive perspective, we had no answer for them. I have to give credit where it's due."
Arizona (16-2, 4-2 Pac-12) has been at its best in close games this season, scoring seven points in the final 56 seconds to beat Florida, knocking off San Diego State on Nick Johnson's last-second block in the title game of the Diamondhead Classic.
It didn't work this time.
Missing easy shots in close and giving up too many to UCLA in the opening minutes, the Wildcats fell into the big early hole and couldn't make it all the way back despite a couple of runs in each half.
Johnson scored 23 points, Mark Lyons added 16 and Solomon Hill had 13 and 10 rebounds for the Wildcats, who went 5 for 24 from 3-point range and struggled to slow the Bruins.
"We got down early," Hill said. "When you get down like that, it's hard to fight back. UCLA is a great team and we couldn't contain them."
Coming off a disappointing loss to Oregon, UCLA tried to turn Arizona's whiteout into a blowout, racing to a 16-point lead in the game's first seven minutes.
Even when Arizona chipped away at the lead, bringing the all-in-white crowd at the McKale Center to life, the Bruins kept their composure in one of the toughest places to play in college basketball.
Larry Drew II played a steady game at the point, dishing out nine assists while turning it over twice. David Wear helped make up for the loss of his twin brother to a head injury in the second half, scoring 15 points with eight rebounds.
Kyle Anderson shook off the effects of a flu that caused him to miss a day of practice this week, grabbing 12 rebounds to go with eight points. Jordan Adams, another player who missed practice due to illness, scored 15 points after fighting through cramps against Arizona.
The biggest contribution came from Shabazz Muhammad.
Thriving under the lights of the big stage, the freshman guard keyed UCLA's big early run and hit some big shots down the stretch, finishing with 23 points.
"When the lights are on and the cameras are on, he really comes to life," UCLA coach Ben Howland said.
Heading in, this was one of the most anticipated games of the Pac-12 season, two of the conference's most talented teams that score in bunches and have some of the best freshmen anywhere.
Arizona's freshmen big men — Kaleb Tarczewski, Brandon Ashley and Grant Jerrett — have been solid in their first season in the desert, though they have been able to fall back on Arizona's veterans when things have gotten tight.
After opening with 14 straight wins, the Wildcats' luck in pulling out tight games ran out with a 70-66 road loss to Oregon on Jan. 10. They responded with a pair of impressive wins, beating Oregon State and Arizona State both by double digits.
UCLA had some rough patches early in the season, losing to Cal Poly and needing overtime to beat UC Irvine, along with Tyler Lamb and Joshua Smith transferring from the program.
The Bruins rounded back into form after losing to San Diego State on Dec. 1, winning 10 straight games before losing to No. 16 Oregon on Saturday.
UCLA's freshmen — Muhammad, Adams and Anderson — handled a big road test in a win over Colorado two weeks ago, but the McKale Center and all those rowdy fans wearing white T-shirts and screaming at them.
No problem for these Bruins, young and old.
Confident and crisp on offense, UCLA made eight of its first 12 shots, racing out to a 19-3 lead. Arizona helped out by clanging shot after shot, opening 1 for 13, with most of those around the rim.
The Wildcats were getting decent shots, though, and a few started to fall as they chipped away at the lead.
Arizona climbed its shooting percentage up to 31 percent (11 for 25) by halftime, but had trouble stopping the Bruins, who went 19 for 34 from the floor for a 40-30 lead. Muhammad led the way with 11 points.
"From a defensive perspective, we had no answer for them," Arizona coach Miller said.
The Wildcats managed to cut UCLA's lead to 55-51, but Muhammad hit a 3-pointer and added a couple of free throws after a steal to give the Bruins a good cushion.
Arizona kept missing and UCLA made enough shots and free throws down the stretch to pull out its biggest road win of the season.