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March 8, 2012

Shorthanded 'Cats overcome UCLA's size

LOS ANGELES - There were a chain of events leading up to Thursday's Pac-12 Conference tournament quarterfinal between Arizona and UCLA that made the Wildcats look like a team peaking at the right time to one that was a sinking ship.

The Wildcats rolled through February, winning seven of eight games at one point, but were stunned in the regular-season finale four days ago. Then, starting point guard Josiah Turner was suspended indefinitely and did not make the trip with the team to the conference tournament.

And, yet, with virtually a six-man team, the shorthanded, undersized 'Cats pulled out a 66-58 win at the Staples Center over the much bigger Bruins to advance to the conference tournament semifinals.

"It's not as if we've played a season full of non-issues," UA head coach Sean Miller said, pointing out the team's setbacks from the time Kevin Parrom was shot before the season started to his backup point guard Jordin Mayes missing a significant portion of February with a stress reaction in his left foot.

So a little more resiliency couldn't hurt, right?

UA (22-10), which shot just 34.9 percent (15 of 43), led by as many as 10 points in the first half but UCLA (19-14) stormed back despite losing its size advantage.

Much like the last meeting between the teams, UA was able to get Josh Smith into foul trouble as the 6-10, 300-plus-pound center picked up his fourth foul with 14:08 to play. After a brief rest, Smith fouled out after running into Jesse Perry while chasing down a rebound with 11:03 to play.

Smith logged just nine minutes off the bench, finishing with seven points on 3-of-7 shooting and two rebounds.

The 'Cats were able to make the Bruins' considerable size advantage a non-factor and win the rebounding battle, 39-30.

Perry said that the team's mentality to crash the boards and "attack" was needed against a UCLA team with four contributors that stand 6-10.

"Rebounding, staying together and having an attack mentality," Perry said. "It opened up a lot of shots for us and our teammates."

But UCLA quickly rallied with six unanswered points and pulled to within 43-42 on a Jerime Anderson layup at the 9:46 mark to force a timeout. Less than a minute later, Tyler Lamb gave the Bruins their first lead since a 2-1 advantage inside the game's first three minutes.

"I thought Jerime was a key factor in that run where we were down six or seven," Bruins head coach Ben Howland said.

But trailing 48-47, the Wildcats responded with a 14-5 run to restore a 61-53 advantage with 2:52 to play. From there, UA iced the game at the free-throw line, where it converted 31 of 36 attempts and had a plus-20 advantage in free throws attempted.

In the second half, Arizona attempted 27 free throws to UCLA's 13.

"To me, we attacked the basket," Miller said. "These guys attacked the basket the right way."

Wildcats forwards Solomon Hill and Perry led the way, combining for 41 points and 24 rebounds. Senior guard Kyle Fogg added 13 points.

Hill, who made 5 of 9 shots, finished with a game-high 25 points and made 12 of 14 free throws.

"These three guys are the heart and soul of our team," Miller said.

But it was on defense where the Wildcats changed the game, particularly freshman Nick Johnson who chipped in four huge blocks - all in the second half.

"I thought [Johnson] made some real key plays to us winning," Miller said.

UCLA senior guard Lazeric Jones paced the Bruins with 17 points but missed 11 of 16 shots. As a team, the Bruins shot just 39 percent (23 of 59).

The Wildcats will face ninth-seeded Oregon State in the semifinals Friday at 6 p.m. PST. The Beavers upset top seed and conference regular-season champion Washington, 86-84, earlier in the day.

"Doesn't matter who you play," Hill said about avoiding a Huskies team that swept the regular-season series against the Wildcats this season.

In a bit of a surprise move, 6-11 reserve center Kyryl Natyazhko checked into the game early in the first half instead of lanky freshman forward Angelo Chol. Miller said Tuesday that Natyazhko or senior reserve Alex Jacobson could provide "a short burst" to combat the Bruins' size.

Natyazhko had played just twice in the team's final nine regular-season games prior to the Pac-12 tournament and served a one-game suspension before the Wildcats' Feb. 23 win over USC.

In three first-half minutes, Natyazhko contributed a jump shot and a rebound, and was able to bother Smith a bit in the paint.

At a little past the midway point of the opening half, the Bruins had more turnovers (9) than points (6) and trailed by seven. UA's defense made UCLA's offense look stagnant and the Bruins were forcing contested jump shots with the shot clock running down.

But UA had its own issues taking care of the ball and committed 10 first-half turnovers, equaling UCLA's total in the half. On top of that, the team shot just 9 of 23 (39.1 percent) in the first 20 minutes and could not take advantage of the Bruins' miscues.

Trailing 21-11 with 6:40 to play in the half, UCLA used a 12-3 run capped by a Travis Wear jumper to pull within a point. But the 'Cats scored five unanswered points in the final 1:06 to take a 29-23 lead into the locker room.

Tracy McDannaldTracy McDannald
GOAZCATS.com Senior Editor

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