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January 10, 2014

No. 1 Arizona holds off UCLA in nail-biter

LOS ANGELES -- After watching its double-digit lead evaporate in less than 3 minutes, top-ranked Arizona received a gut check Thursday night at one of its few vulnerable areas in what has been a perfect start to the season.

And with the Wildcats' worst free-throw shooter struggling once more, season-long resiliency took over.

Aaron Gordon connected on two of the team's eight free throws over the final 63 seconds and UA held off UCLA, 79-75, at Pauley Pavilion to match the best start in program history.

"Coach pulled [Gordon] aside and he always says, 'Calm down, bend your knees and shoot them like you're in practice,'" said UA junior guard Nick Johnson, who scored a game-high 22 points.

"They were two big ones."

Johnson made 9 of 15 shots and was one of four double-figure scorers for the Wildcats (16-0, 3-0 Pac-12 Conference), who converted 53.8 percent from the floor but just 65.4 percent at the line in the contest. Kaleb Tarczewski added 16 points, Gabe York chipped in 12 and Gordon had 10.

The Wildcats, who came in shooting 68.1 percent as a team on free throws, avenged last season's 0-3 mark against the Bruins (12-3, 1-1 Pac-12). The 16-0 start was last accomplished by the 1931-32 team.

"We battled through, we were resilient, we left with a good win," UA head coach Sean Miller said.

Down by 13, UCLA used a 11-2 run to cut what was a double-digit deficit for most of the second half down to 4 with 3:29 left.

Gordon, who missed the front end of the 1-and-1 on his previous trip to the free-throw line, did so again and Kyle Anderson tacked onto the spurt with a free throw of his own. Off an Arizona miss, Jordan Adams then drilled a 3-pointer with 2:23 left to tie the game at 68 and put the crowd in a frenzy.

Brandon Ashley finally converted at the stripe for the Wildcats but could only split his pair. With 1:44 to play, Bryce Alford calmly made both of his free throws to give the Bruins the 70-69 lead - their first since the 2:48 mark of the opening half.

But Johnson's floater in the lane on the next trip down, an Alford turnover and UCLA foul on Gordon set the stage for the game's most tense moment. Before stepping to the line for two more, Gordon was 0 for 2 to do further damage to his 44.9 percent mark coming into the contest.

Swish. Swish.

"I missed the first two that I took but they just felt good," Gordon said. "So I was like, 'OK, I'm just going to keep shooting them the same way' and those two dropped in."

UCLA pulled within 2 on Zach LaVine's 3-pointer with 15 seconds left but York iced the game from the not-always-so-free line.

The Bruins lost despite forcing 17 turnovers and owning a 16-11 edge on the offensive glass. After trailing in the rebounding column at the half, the Wildcats came away with a 37-36 edge to remain perfect in that respect too.

Anderson, a triple-double threat all season for UCLA, led the way with 16 points, 11 rebounds and six assists.

"We made some really good plays and got some good looks late," Bruins head coach Steve Alford said.

"We need to do better with some lapses defensively. We can't do that against teams like this."

Leading by four at halftime, Arizona clamped down defensively early in the second half. UCLA managed just six points through the first eight minutes of the half.

In that span, the Wildcats extended their lead to 60-48 and were seemingly in control. But, after a quick breather, Gordon was re-inserted into the game but made a quick exit after picking up his fourth foul at the 9:39 mark.

Despite grinding out the next three minutes, Arizona watched UCLA climb back in with one final push to threaten the winning streak.

"They challenged us to a great deal," Miller said.

Trailing 24-18 in the first half, UCLA scored 11 of the next 16 points capped by Alford's banked 3-pointer to tie the score with 4:50 remaining.

But against the Bruins' zone defense, the Wildcats were able to use precision passing to score. York accounted for a pair of assists - one to Gordon for a reverse dunk and another to Johnson for a 3-pointer - to put UA back on top, 39-36.

"We're a very unselfish basketball team," York said.

The passing against the zone helped the 'Cats shoot 53.3 percent in the first 20 minutes. Five of T.J. McConnell's seven assists were recorded in the first half and the team had 13 of its 18 by the break.

York, who scored nine first-half points in as many minutes, made the last of his three 3-pointers with 1:05 left to help UA take a 42-38 lead into the locker room.

"We handled the zone pretty well," Miller said. "We actually have a lot of confidence against the zone. You don't just have to shoot 3s against it; you can get inside shots.

"Gabe York was really instrumental in the first half, though."

Tracy McDannaldTracy McDannald
GOAZCATS.com Senior Editor

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