By Javier Morales
Special from AllSportsTucson.com
LAS VEGAS, Nev. -- Hall of Fame coach Lute Olson walked past the Arizona locker room Friday night and joked “Never a doubt” with reporters following the Wildcats' grind-it-out 70-64 victory over rival UCLA.
Freshman guard Stanley Johnson feels the same about his ability to make the game-winning play. Only it's no joke. It's confidence befitting of a senior, not a freshman in his first collegiate postseason.
“You know what, man, it's money time,” Johnson said about his crucial three-pointer and two free throws in the last 1:21 of the game at the MGM Grand Garden Arena. “Whatever happens, I think I'm the type of player who's been in situations where I have to make plays.
“I am really comfortable. That's what I'm made for. That's why I came to Arizona, to make tough shots like the ones I made today.”
The No. 1-seeded Wildcats will need more clutch play from him and their rotation against Oregon, 67-64 winners over Utah on Friday, in the championship game of the Pac-12 tournament Saturday night. The No. 2-seeded Ducks (25-8) defeated Utah (24-8) on a three-pointer by Pac-12 Player of the Year Joe Young with two seconds left.
“We'll go out and have fun and swing away,” said Oregon coach Dana Altman, whose team was swept by Arizona in the regular season.
Young scored a combined 24 points in the losses to the Wildcats, well below his league-leading scoring average of 20.1 points.
“T.J. McConnell went out and led his team the way he should in those games, and I feel like I did not do the same thing for us,” Young said of the Arizona guard, who was a player of the year challenger.
Arizona (30-3) has earned its sixth 30-win season, third under Sean Miller since his hire in 2009-10. No other Pac-12 team has won 30 games in that span.
UCLA, which beat Arizona in the two previous years in the Pac-12 tournament in hard-fought games, is 20-13. The Bruins will anxiously await their fate Sunday with the NCAA tournament selection committee.
With the Wildcats exorcising their UCLA demons here, they must now focus on getting over the hump in terms of their Pac-12 tournament title drought. Arizona has not won the championship game since 2002. It will be Miller's fourth appearance in the title game in his six years at Arizona.
“We're happy with the win, but we're not satisfied,” Gabe York said. “We have a long way to go. We have another 40 minutes to play. We have to piece that game together and get another victory.”
Brandon Ashley helped Arizona solve UCLA's 3-2 zone, which featured a post player on top and two athletic guards at the elbow of the lane. Ashley finished with a career-high 22 points making shots inside and from mid-range, keeping the Bruins' defense honest.
“Brandon, if you consider that he was 21-0 (before his season-ending injury) last year, that makes him 51-3 in the last two years,” Miller said. “And T.J., he never lost a home game. These players, and their resiliency, really I thought represented kind of who we've been really from start to finish.”
UCLA looked like it would add to Arizona's conference tournament misery when it led 47-40 with 12:07 left in the game. An angry Miller called a timeout at that point after Norman Powell made a driving layup against sophomore Elliott Pitts.
Miller shook his head in disgust at Pitts as the players gathered for the timeout. Miller did not remove Pitts from the game, which proved to be pivotal. In the ensuing possession, Pitts made his strongest move in his Arizona career, making a fierce driving layup to cut the lead to 47-42 with 11:50 left.
That basket, drawing a defender out of position on a head fake, sparked a 15-0 run that gave Arizona a 55-47 lead with 7:02 remaining.
“It didn't really faze me or anything like that; it was just Coach Miller trying to coach me,” Pitts said of Miller's interaction with him before the huddle. “That's fine with me. He wanted me to stay in front of my man and be a little bit stronger on defense. That's how I stay in the game.”
UCLA's lack of depth and foul trouble, which doomed them in Tucson, played a part in the Bruins' demise Friday night.
The Bruins led until the 9:32 mark in the second half in Tucson. At the very same point Friday night, UCLA's lead came to an end on a layup by McConnell past its 3-2 zone.
Similar to the game last month at McKale Center, Arizona did enough at the end to subdue the Bruins in the waning minutes.
After Johnson's botched layup, forcing a shot on a 1-on-3 break, Powell made a three-pointer to cut Arizona's lead to 61-59. Johnson responded on the other end, corralling a missed jumper by McConnell and getting fouled with 1:21 left. He swished both free throws.
“Coach Miller said this in the press conference: Stanley is the best at forgetting a bad play and coming up and making a big play after that,” McConnell said. “We respect him for it. He's a big-time player and he made a big-time play.”
After the free throws, Johnson's big play was a three-pointer with 37 seconds left after Tony Parker managed layup on the other end. The three-pointer put Arizona ahead 66-61.
Johnson said it was a designed play after a screen-and-roll in which McConnell drew a defender and passed to an open Johnson.
“I was looking at the rim the whole possession and that's the only thing I was looking at,” Johnson said. “It was me and the rim.”
Johnson said the three-pointer was vindication for late-game mishaps at UNLV (turnover at the end) and Oregon State (allowing the go-ahead basket on defense).
“All season, I've been a victim of a shot hit on me, or a person driving by me for the game or keeping the game tight,” he said. “The Basketball Gods finally came my way.”
McConnell was not surprised Johnson shook off his forced missed shot with 1:43 and bouncing back strong to help Arizona win.
“He's definitely matured (since early in the season), but he's been the same way confidence-wise,” McConnell said. “I think everybody would agree with me.”
UCLA freshman Kevon Looney, who played with a plastic mask after suffering a cheek injury Thursday, answered Johnson's three-pointer with one of his own, cutting Arizona's lead to 66-64.
McConnell and Ashley, who had a career-high 21 points, made both sets of free throws at the end to secure the win. Arizona made its last nine free throw attempts after starting 10-of-18.
“It comes down to focus at the end of the day,” Rondae Hollis-Jefferson said of the strong finish including outrebounding UCLA 22-13 in the second half. “When you want to win everything else is blocked out. When you want to win all of that is put aside.”
Javier Morales, a former Arizona Press Club award winner from Tucson, is a veteran sportswriter based out of the Las Vegas area. He covered Arizona's 1996-97 national championship team as the beat reporter for The Arizona Daily Star. He currently operates the Web site AllSportsTucson.com.