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March 15, 2013

Pac-12 title game berth at stake for Arizona, UCLA

LAS VEGAS -- Arizona head coach Sean Miller has showered UCLA point guard Larry Drew II with praise this season. He was Miller's pick for the Pac-12 Conference player of the year award that instead went to California's Allen Crabbe.

Now, Crabbe and the third-seeded Bears are out of the Pac-12 tournament early after losing an overtime stunner Thursday to No. 10 Utah, and Drew II's top-seeded Bruins will meet the No. 4 Wildcats in a 6:06 p.m. PT semifinal Friday at the MGM Grand Garden Arena. The winner will face either Utah or Oregon in Saturday's championship game at 8 p.m.

"It would mean everything for me to really end with a win here and be able to cut down the nets and wear the hats and T-shirts. But it's all one game at a time," UA senior forward Solomon Hill said.

If UCLA's 80-75 quarterfinal win over Arizona State is any indication, Drew II may be a player-of-the-year-worthy obstacle in Hill's vision. The senior led the Bruins (24-8) with 20 points on 8-of-10 shooting Thursday, and was largely responsible for UCLA's series sweep over preseason-favorite Arizona (25-6) this season.

In the two victories combined, Drew scored 21 points, handed out 18 assists and turned the ball over just six times.

"Larry Drew has been a huge reason that we've lost both games," Miller said. "He has scored and also gotten his teammates easy baskets. But we have to be able to contain him. We have to be able to make sure that he doesn't control the game at the end of the clock, at the end of the game."

The Wildcats will look for Nick Johnson to slow down a second floor general in as many days.

The sophomore, who was an honorable mention selection for the Pac-12's all-defensive team, limited Colorado point guard Spencer Dinwiddie to 4-of-12 shooting and two assists Thursday in UA's 79-69 quarterfinal win.

"Many times our defense starts with Nick," Miller said.

But it was Johnson's offense that was the story - and a huge boost after his significant dropoff in conference play for a second consecutive regular season. The combo guard finished with 18 points and missed just one of his seven field goal attempts.

Johnson's backcourt partner may be just as important. Brought to Arizona for his knack to show up in the big games, Xavier transfer Mark Lyons has struggled against the regular-season conference champions this season. Lyons has made just 11 of 32 shots and committed 10 turnovers in two games against the Bruins.

Lyons has not played much better lately. The first-team All-Pac-12 performer made just 4 of 13 shots - 2 of 9 from the 3-point line - but hit a backbreaking corner 3 late to hold off the Buffaloes.

The supporting cast picked up the slack, however, as the bench produced 18 of its 25 points in the first half. The 'Cats are hoping that will carry over and be the difference in the third and most important contest.

Among the standouts was junior backup point guard Jordin Mayes, who finished with eight points, made 2 of 3 from beyond the arc and continued his turnaround after a mostly porous regular season. Mayes shot just 31.6 percent in 18 conference games but, ironically, started his resurgence with eight points on 3-of-6 shooting in Arizona's 74-69 loss at UCLA on March 2.

The loss capped a disastrous two-game trip to Southern California and created several of the question marks the Wildcats faced entering the Pac-12 tournament. Now, one of its most unreliable players may suddenly be an X-factor.

"Jordin gave us a spark," Miller said. "We talked before the game that in tournament play it's many times a guy who doesn't start who is the difference, who comes into the game and makes big plays. Jordin's confidence really started to come back around in L.A. It was one of the few bright spots of that trip for us."

Arizona eliminated UCLA from last season's Pac-12 tournament quarterfinals in Los Angeles.

But those Bruins did not have Drew II or the dangerous first-year trio of Shabazz Muhammad, Kyle Anderson and Jordan Adams. Muhammad, the league's co-freshman of the year and a Sin City native, led the Bruins in scoring in both games, totaling 41 points.

"We're playing against a team that's beat us twice, and we'll have to play our best performance of the season to beat those guys," Miller said.

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Tracy McDannaldTracy McDannald
GOAZCATS.com Senior Editor

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