With the seventh top-five showdown to ever occur in the conference, Arizona Wildcats fans had McKale Center rocking, and for good reason when the UCLA Bruins came to town on Saturday.
Having been at just about every Arizona game the last three years, it was the loudest and most energetic a McKale crowd had been since the Gonzaga overtime win in 2014.
But UCLA didn’t mind it. Not one bit.
“Not an easy place to come in to play and get a win, for us to do that in late February, I’m very proud of ‘em,” UCLA head coach Steve Alford after his team’s 77-72 victory.
So why didn’t the Bruins get phased in a place that Arizona had only lost once in its previous 71 games?
Well, because this Bruins team has grown accustomed to big-time environments.
“I think a big part of that, and I talked about this with a lot of my New Mexico teams, when your home environment gets cranked up, it helps you when you go on the road, and our home environment this year has been tremendous,” coach Alford continued. “I saw some of The Den guys here today. Our student section’s been phenomenal; we’ve had sellouts. So you get used to playing in noise, and just that kind of atmosphere.”
“They’re a tough team to play and this is a tough place to play,” junior center Thomas Welsh added. “But we just wanted to focus on doing what we do and playing as hard as we could.”
“Our crowd has been amazing this year. Every game is pretty much rockin’,” freshman forward TJ Leaf tacked on. “So when we step to the free throw line or the game gets really intense, and the crowd gets into it, we’re definitely used to it.”
“Home is great,” freshman guard Lonzo Ball echoed. “Lot of fans. They’re a tremendous help to us and what we do, and we appreciate that.”
This game was UCLA’s third really impressive road performance of the year, having now won games at Kentucky and Arizona, and losing to Oregon in Eugene on a buzzer beater.
The Bruins also swept the Utah/Colorado trip this year, which was a thing that no non-Arizona school had ever done before in the Pac-12 era.
“We played in situations like this before at Kentucky and Oregon,” Ball stated. “Just come in here, play defense, and get a win.”
“I think not just playing at Kentucky, playing at Oregon, and obviously playing here in great environments; we’ve had a great home environment this year, and I think that’s helped our guys when they go on the road,” coach Alford added.
UCLA’s home attendance used to be the target of a lot of Sean Miller jabs in the past, but the Bruins are 33rd in average attendance this year, averaging 10,853 fans per game. BYU, Arizona, Utah, San Diego State, and New Mexico are the only teams in the west that average more fans in attendance.
You can also look at Arizona’s home success another way too: The two teams that are considered elite that have come to Tucson in the last couple years have both won. Arizona has a great record in that time frame, but when the Wildcats take on that top talent, they falter.
That will have to change a bit if this team is to reach the school’s first Final Four in 16 years.