LAS VEGAS -- Missed free throws gave UCLA a chance, and missed opportunities by the Arizona Wildcats sealed the deal. Sean Miller's team fell in the Pac-12 Championship game for the third time in his tenure, but it's the lessons learned that he hopes can take Arizona far.
"If we won this championship, it's about next week. If we lost this championship, it's about next week," Miller said.
That didn't make losing to the Bruins 75-71 on Saturday in the MGM Grand Garden Arena completely painless.
To break a 68-all tie, Jordan Adams hit a three-pointer with 43 seconds. The play-call resembled one leading to an Adams miss on Jan. 9 against Arizona in Pauley Pavilion. Adams said that play in the teams' first meeting haunted him -- it would have tied the game with 50 seconds left. UCLA coach Steve Alford gave his guard a chance to make amends with a play-call that got a rise out of his exhausted team.
"Fifty-two seconds (left), going into the timeout and we're laughing," Alford said. "I come into the huddle and I said, 'How about money?' And these guys are cheering and jumping around. So when you have a team that excited to run something, you're crazy as a coach not to at least try it."
The motivational tactic -- or simply the play itself -- worked. Arizona floundered in forcing three three-pointers to answer rather than opting for two-point looks with enough time left. Over the final five minutes of the game, UA only scored on a late three-pointer by Nick Johnson with a second left in the game.
Miller said the late-game chucks gave his team a lesson. But playing catch-up late in a game isn't the biggest worry.
Knocking down 6-of-16 free throws was the eyebrow-raising piece of a box score that was strikingly even between UCLA and Arizona. The Wildcats allowing 58 percent shooting in the first half and 26 percent in the second was the other noticeable statistical bit.
"Was Jordan Adams' shot a huge shot?" Yep," Miller said. "But so was the first shot of the game, and we didn't get back in transition."
Arizona spotted UCLA a double-digit lead when a starting lineup of Kaleb Tarczewski, Aaron Gordon, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Nick Johnson and T.J. McConnell couldn't get stops. That lineup also struggled mightily to score in the first 5:30 of the game -- only a Gordon three gave UCLA any reason to not pack the paint. But the insertion of Elliott Pitts and Gabe York into the lineup gave Arizona life. The duo poured in four threes as the Bruins failed to adjust to the personnel switches.
The Bruins were difficult to stop, even with the UA defense finally getting back to its usual self 10 minutes into the game.
Adams scored 19 points on the afternoon, and Kyle Anderson dominated with 21 points, 15 rebounds and five assists.
"I've got news for whoever draws them in the NCAA Tournament -- Kyle Anderson and Jordan Adams -- good luck," Miller said.
For Arizona, good can come from a Pac-12 Championship loss. Isaiah Thomas' step-back struck the right chord for Arizona in 2011, before the Wildcats went on an Elite Eight run. And on Saturday, there was noticeable growth on Miller's team. Gordon sniffed a triple-double by scoring 11 points, grabbing eight rebounds and finishing with a career-high eight assists. Nick Johnson added 22 points.
The only question moving forward is what Arizona can do to avoid its lapses -- on both ends of the court.
A philosophical look in the mirror might do the trick, but so could a loss to UCLA that matters only in the win-loss column.