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UCLA vs. Arizona: Poor defensive rebounding, zone offense doom Wildcats in loss to Bruins

Arizona did what it needed to do defensively to win ... except rebound

NCAA Basketball: UCLA at Arizona Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

If you had told Sean Miller that the Arizona Wildcats would have the opportunity to limit the UCLA Bruins to 77 points, he would have jumped at it.

“I would have signed up for that because they’re such a great offensive team,” the UA head coach said Saturday.

And it happened.

The Wildcats held the Bruins to their lowest-scoring mark since January, as the nation’s best offense produced below its season averages, shooting just 45 percent from the field and 31 percent from 3.

There was one problem.

“We just could not get a rebound,” Miller said. “When you give a team like that that many second-chance points, they’re going to win.”

The Bruins had 14 offensive rebounds and turned them into a 20-4 edge in second-chance points, allowing them to leave Tucson with a 77-72 road victory.

“We didn’t do a very good job of defensive rebounding and it lost us the game,” said Allonzo Trier, who scored a game-high 28 points. “It’s pretty clear cut.”

In total, the Wildcats were outrebounded 35-28 and their problems on the glass were “across the board”, not just one or two players failing to box out.

Arizona’s trio of 7-footers combined for 11 rebounds, while no guard had more than three rebounds.

“We did a really good job in a lot of ways defending them, but we did a poor job rebounding. As bad as we’ve done all season,” Miller said. “Our inability to get long rebounds, tough rebounds. Bigs, guards. It was disappointing because in big games it only comes down to the things that you do well, you better do them. If you play in a big game, and your strengths don’t show up, you’re very, very vulnerable. And one of our team’s strengths is our ability to get stops and defensive rebounds and tonight we didn’t.”

Ironically, as potent as UCLA’s offense is, offensive rebounding is not one of its strengths. The Bruins entered Saturday’s game as the fifth-best offensive rebounding team in the Pac-12.

“They were the bigger, stronger, tougher, more physical team,” Miller said.

An inability to finish defensive possessions was not Arizona’s only problem. It also had difficulty creating quality looks against UCLA’s 3-2 zone.

“We just didn’t execute,” Miller said. “We didn’t. I don’t know if that alone beat us. Certainly the rebounding was really big but I look at our offensive numbers … we had only four offensive rebounds and we had four second-chance points. You put that up to (UCLA’s) 20, that really hurt our offense.”

The Wildcats shot 51 percent as a team, but the word the ‘team’ should be used lightly.

Trier was 11-for-14 from the field, while the rest of the Wildcats were 15-for-37.

“Against the zone, we needed to move the ball,” Miller said. “We settled for 3s, we passed around the perimeter, we lost our purpose and I really burned all of our timeouts to give our guys the best chance to get the ball inside and in the middle. And we started to do that at the end, but not after we had too many empty possessions.”

Too many empty possessions on offense and too many unfinished possessions on defense.

“Those two things,” Miller said, referring to his team’s defensive rebounding and zone offense, “one I think is easily fixable, which is the zone (offense). Number two, our rebounding is disappointing. It hasn’t happened to us in a long time and I credit UCLA.”

Even still, Arizona had a chance to force overtime, despite trailing by 11 with 5:24 left to play.

The Wildcats used a 12-4 run to cut their deficit to 75-72 with 22 seconds left, and UCLA’s Aaron Holiday missed the front end of a one-and-one, opening the door for the Wildcats to have the final shot in a one-possession game.

However, since Miller had used all of Arizona’s timeouts to help his team figure out UCLA’s zone, the Wildcats’ final opportunity was improvised.

The makeshift plan was to get Markkanen open for 3 in a pick-and-pop play.

It never materialized.

“You don’t have a set play at this point in time,” Arizona point guard Parker Jackson-Cartwright said. “We didn’t have any timeouts, so we just were trying to get a good look.”

The Wildcats scrambled and the ball ended up in Kadeem Allen’s hands on the left wing.

With the clock winding down, it was Arizona’s lone senior — on senior day — who took the final shot.

It was a contested 3.

He airballed.

There was no storybook ending.

“No question we didn’t get a good look on the last play,” Miller said.

“That’s on me. I tried to make it a game by calling all the timeouts and getting to the finish line so we had a chance to win. When you do that, it’s not easy all of a sudden to get that last shot without a timeout.

“They played a zone, so when you’re playing a zone it’s teamwork, it’s ball movement, it’s not something I could really call.”

UA’s last-ditch effort was botched, and failing to get the ball to the hot-handed Trier was probably the biggest error on the play.

But it wasn’t why Arizona lost.

“The last play was one of hundreds of plays in the game,” Miller said. “I can go back to a number of offensive rebounds that [UCLA] got in my mind that were much more effective towards them winning the game than the fact we had to heave one up at the end.

“Those are plays throughout the game that for me as a coach are more meaningful than who shot the last shot of the game.”

Just last month, the roles were flipped in this rivalry. It was Arizona that beat UCLA on its home floor.

Similarly, Miller hopes his team responds the way the Bruins did.

UCLA has won seven in a row and is arguably playing its best basketball of the season, especially on defense.

“In moments like this, you learn a lot about the character of your team,” Miller said. “You learn a lot about the character of the families that you coach. You learn a lot about yourself as a coaching staff because, hey, nobody wanted to win more than us.

“We weren’t able to get it done tonight. ... And just like when we went to Pauley Pavilion and beat them there, I’m sure that was a tough moment for them. But they found a way to respond and I’m sure in some ways they’re probably better because it happened. We have to do the same thing and in two weeks we could find ourselves in Las Vegas playing this very same team and hopefully we’ll be more ready.”

You can follow this author on Twitter at @RKelapire