TUCSON, Ariz. – All week UCLA players had girded themselves for the noise, the passion, the feared aura of Arizona's home court.
In the final moments Thursday night there was only audible unease, pierced by a half-hearted "U of A!" chant. The lowered intensity was a reflection of a fast-emptying arena.
Fans started leaving the McKale Center after Bruins forward Kris Wilkes made a three-pointer to give his team a 12-point lead with about 21/2 minutes left. More departed after Arizona's Brandon Randolph missed a jumper. The aisles finally became jammed when UCLA's GG Goloman drained a three-pointer, wiggling his fingers for fun on his way back down the court.
UCLA silenced the crowd and critics who believe it doesn't belong in the NCAA tournament with an 82-74 victory over the No. 13 Wildcats that was a resounding statement about the Bruins' potential in March.
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"We did what we wanted to do," said UCLA freshman Jaylen Hands, whose barrage of three consecutive three-pointers to end the first half nudged the Bruins toward a fourth consecutive victory, "so we weren't surprised when the crowd wasn't in it as much as they could be."
UCLA (17-7 overall, 8-4 in the Pac-12 Conference) closed to within one game of Arizona (19-6, 9-3) in the conference standings after handing the Wildcats their first home defeat of the season. Arizona has now gone 79-3 at home since the start of the 2013-14 season. Two of the losses were generated by the Bruins.
"It's huge," UCLA guard Aaron Holiday said of beating the Wildcats on their home court for a second consecutive season. "We're obviously fighting for our spot in the NCAA tournament and it's just a big win for that aspect of moving on for it."
UCLA won the showdown of teams featuring prolific offenses and sagging defenses by flustering the Wildcats with a 1-2-2 zone that helped neutralize 7-footers Deandre Ayton and Dusan Ristic.
"They have all the talent that they need," Goloman said, "and we were ready."
Ayton finished with 16 points and 12 rebounds but made only seven of 19 shots and rarely looked comfortable. Ristic made five of eight shots for 16 points but played only 26 minutes because Arizona tried to counter the Bruins with four guards.
It didn't work. At all.
Holiday collected 17 points and eight rebounds and Goloman, making his first start in three weeks as part of a bigger lineup, was strong across the board with a career-high 16 points, four rebounds, two assists, two blocks and two steals. The Bruins shot 51.6 percent while holding Arizona to 43.9 percent.
UCLA held all the momentum at halftime after Hands made three consecutive NBA-range three-pointers to give the Bruins a 44-34 lead. Hands walked coolly back down the court after the last three-pointer before receiving a hearty hand slap from Holiday.
The crowd stood in stunned silence as the Bruins jogged toward their locker room. A student who once held a sign reading "ALFORD LOST HIS BALLS" in reference to coach Steve Alford having to deal with the departures of brothers Lonzo and LiAngelo Ball sunk back into his seat.
"It was fun," Hands said of his three-pointers. "I've done it once or twice in Pauley (Pavilion) and it's cool because the crowd goes crazy. Doing it on the road, it gets quiet."
UCLA withstood every second-half run in the only regular-season meeting between these teams, sloughing off the weight of road collapses earlier this season against Michigan and Stanford.
After the Wildcats shaved their 10-point halftime deficit to four, Goloman and Wilkes made back-to-back three-pointers. After Rawle Alkins nailed a three-pointer to get Arizona back within seven points, Goloman made a putback in traffic and Holiday a driving layup to restore UCLA's advantage to double figures.
The Wildcats would not seriously challenge again.
As the Bruins walked off the court, forward Wilkes playfully flung his body into video coordinator Kory Alford. Hands broke into a wide smile before slapping hands with a contingent of UCLA fans who lined one part of the arena.
They were the only ones who had reason to linger.
"It's a great feeling," said Goloman, a senior, "especially since this was my last time walking off this court in my career."