college football writer
Note: Bryan Fischer shares insights into the action during the Pac-12 tournament.
GAME 2: Arizona 78, Arizona State 59
LAS VEGAS – Any coach would tell you that a game is lost long before a player lets off a buzzer shot.
It’s a missed second-chance basket, a deflected rebound in the final minutes, or a free throw that goes wide, which ultimately proved to be the difference in keeping a team alive just long enough to survive in the dying embers Position to come to win.
Arizona knows this all too well, having been shocked by its state rivals late last month in Tucson when Arizona State guard Desmond Cambridge Jr.’s 60-foot lever swept in for an unlikely one-point win that went to Tommy Lloyd’s side contributed missed out on a regular-season title.
So it was perhaps no surprise to see the Wildcats energized and active at both ends of the court in the third meeting of Teams of the Year in the Pac-12 Tournament Semifinals, a runaway 78-59 win that the Sun Devils never did had a chance at winning the season series by buzzer beater or other method.
“Sometimes we can ride the ebb and flow of emotions, but today I thought we were even keeled and I thought it worked really well for us,” said Lloyd. “If they play like that, we’re pretty hard to beat.”
Guard Kerr Kriisa started and showed few ill effects in the quarterfinal win over Stanford, an injured shoulder that had prompted him to shoot a late free throw with his left hand while he was obviously in pain. The junior knocked down his first jumper and finished the game with just five points, but gave up four assists and played an active, frustrating defense at the edge.
What Kriisa lacked from a goalscoring perspective was more than made up for by Pelle Larsson and six others, who scored at least six points in a balanced attacking performance that ended the night 52.6 percent. All-Pac-12 first teamer Azuolas Tubelis was 8-of-11 from the field for 17 points and battled Cedric Henderson Jr. (14 points) all night for the team’s top scorer.
Big man Oumar Ballo also played a big role with his athleticism at the low post, helping Arizona to a solid lead in the color with a 14-10 double-double. Last but not least, he also chimed in with three blocks, each time causing much of the pro-Arizona crowd to stand up.
“If you have two bigs like we do, the wisest thing is to feed them,” Lloyd said. “It’s a great layer to have on your offense to be able to put it in the post and play through those guys.”
Bobby Hurley’s side never led by more than three and needed every ounce of defensive effort (15 turnovers forced) to keep going and shooting 29% in the first half on a night when shots just didn’t fall. ASU already had six comeback wins this year while trailing at the break, but failed to capitalize on a handful of UA at-track droughts to close the gap.
That leaves the squad with a sweaty selection Sunday in the bubble for the NCAA tournament. The Sun Devils may have done enough to reach the semifinals, adding the run to several quality wins on their resume, including Michigan, Creighton, USC and the earlier win over Arizona. However, they fell to 5-6 against Quad 1 teams and went into the night with a NET ranking of 60, below several others who were forecast to miss the March Madness cut.
“I had a vision of us taking down the nets, but it just didn’t materialize,” Hurley said. “I really think if you take our top three wins and compare them to other bubble teams, it’s really not close. We showed that we can come away from our home pitch.
“Twenty-two wins in a power conference, how much more do you really need to do?”
On the other hand, the Wildcats are unlikely to be any worse than a two-seed next weekend and could benefit from additional mayhem elsewhere to even sneak into the one-line.
That’s an issue another time, however, as they battle regular-season champions UCLA for their second straight Pac-12 tournament crown on Saturday night. The two split their two meetings that year, with the ‘Cats winning at home in a low-goal affair before the Bruins ended the regular season with a blowout at the other end.
UCLA has not won in the tournament environment since 2014 and faces the prospect of losing two starters, with Jaylen Clark reportedly missing for the year with a leg injury and Pac-12 Freshman of the Year Adem Bona on Friday night with one Blow hurt shoulder from Oregon.
“It’s great, it’s Arizona vs. UCLA. Obviously there’s an amazing rivalry there,” added Lloyd. “We’re both dealing with some injuries, but that’s how tournament basketball is postseason, so you know we’re coming out and you know it’s going to be a big challenge.
“We look forward to the opportunity to play on the big stage.”
GAME 1: UCLA 75, OREGON 56
LAS VEGAS — This was to be a special time for UCLA basketball, a time when a title-winning regular season fueled a run in the only month that mattered for the sport’s preeminent bluebloods.
Instead, March has turned into a much bigger nightmare for Mick Cronin’s team as the Bruins’ hopes of winning the national title for the first time since 1995 have now suffered two critical setbacks in less than a week.
The latest came Friday night at the T-Mobile Arena in the semifinals of the Pac-12 tournament against fourth-placed Oregon, an eventual 75-56 win that proved potentially crippling for the program’s long-term goal of hitting the Nets in Houston shorten in four weeks from now.
Just six days after Jaylen Clark, the conference’s defensive player of the year, went down on Senior Day at the Pauley Pavilion with a leg injury allegedly sustained at the end of the season, UCLA watched as the league’s Freshman of the Year Adem Bona , with a left on the pitch, shoulder injury broke after diving for a loose ball with 16:14 left.
Ducks coach Dana Altman was so concerned with the game unfolding at his feet that he immediately waved over the coaches, sending a wave of despair through the rest of the UCLA bench for the Nigerian forward, who was on both ends of the place had looked great .
Bona, who had four points and four rebounds in 18 minutes, was skillfully replaced by Kenneth Nwuba and Mac Etienne to end the win, but neither have the kind of low post athletics that prove crucial in the NCAA tournament could.
“We have boys on scholarship for a reason. They practice hard and we prepare them for a reason,” Cronin said. “It gets them ready for the next week and gives them experience.”
If there was a silver lining for Cronin and company in the big man’s absence, it came in the form of the rest of the starters, who stepped up their game to salt it against an Oregon side battling for a US spot big dance next week.
“We stepped it up, the guys were great,” Cronin said. “Forward we fight.”
Experienced guard Tyger Campbell had a career-high 28 points, all but eight of which came in the second half. He was also deadly from afar, knocking down four 3-pointers and dishing out six superb assists. Jaime Jaquez Jr. started slow but finished with 18 points and 10 rebounds for another Pac-12 Player of the Year double-double.
“He’s our close,” Jaquez Jr. said of his older teammate. “He puts us in position to make plays.”
Oregon wasn’t without injury concerns of its own, as big man N’Faly Dante was in the starting XI on Thursday night after having to be helped off the ground in the quarterfinals win over Washington State. He scored eight points and 10 boards but didn’t seem to be as effective as he had been for most of the season playing 16 minutes. Will Richardson contributed a team-best 10 points, but it ended up being too little to matter for a talented team that was frustratingly inconsistent for most of 2023.
The loss likely ends any hopes the Ducks had of reaching the NCAA tournament after finishing 44th on the NCAA NET rankings on the night but falling 2-9 against Quad 1 teams. Still, a NIT offer could prove fruitful for Altman to build on next season and much bigger hopes in Eugene.
“I liked how we fought on the boards,” Altman said. “We just didn’t get any stops.[Campbell]sort of got what he wanted.”
The Bruins, meanwhile, continue to fight for one of the four No. 1 seeds in the tournament and a cheap way to make it back to the Final Four that would include a regional in the same building they’ve become accustomed to in Las Vegas.
Those are thoughts for another time, however, as Cronin tries to get his team back on the task at hand on Saturday night as the program looks to win the Conference tournament for the first time since 2014.
Bryan Fischer is a college football writer for FOX Sports. He has been covering collegiate athletics for nearly two decades at outlets such as NBC Sports, CBS Sports, Yahoo! Sports and NFL.com among others. Follow him on Twitter at @BryanDFischer.
Get more out of college basketball Follow your favorites to get information about games, news and more