LAS VEGAS — Before Arizona's Pac-12 quarterfinal victory against Colorado on Thursday, the Wildcats huddled around the TV in their locker room watching the end of the previous game between Arizona State and UCLA.
Kevin Parrom admits he drew a little extra motivation from seeing UCLA win because he knew that meant if a chance to avenge two previous losses to the Bruins if Arizona could beat Colorado.
"I don't want any team thinking they have our number and I don't want to lose to any team three times in a row," Parrom said. "Both games, I think we lost because of us, not necessarily because of them. We need to play with more effort and we need to match their intensity to win."
Not only did Arizona earn its semifinal rematch with UCLA by posting a 79-69 victory over the Buffaloes, the fourth-seeded Wildcats also did some things well enough to give hope of a better outcome Friday night against the top-seeded Bruins.
Nick Johnson, who was mired in a February slump the last time Arizona met UCLA, had a second straight efficient scoring night, tallying 18 points on seven shots and delivering the driving layup that clinched the game in the final minute. The sophomore also spearheaded a strong defensive effort from Arizona by hampering Colorado catalyst Spencer Dinwiddie, yielding 18 points but holding him to 4 of 12 shooting.
"When Nick's playing like that, that's when we're at our best," Arizona coach Sean Miller said. "He does so many things for our team. There are times when he's almost like a point guard out there on offense. He's certainly a defender who has immense talent and he's a capable scorer too."
If Johnson can duplicate his production from Thursday and Arizona continues to receive timely contributions from reserve guard Jordin Mayes and its young interior corps, that bodes well for the Wildcats' chances against the Bruins. More than anything, however, Arizona will have to defend better against the formidable UCLA attack.
UCLA ripped Arizona in Tucson 84-73 behind 24 points from Shabazz Muhammad and nine assists from Larry Drew II. It was that same duo that propelled the Bruins to a more narrow 74-69 victory in Los Angeles on March 2, Muhammad scoring 18 points and Drew contributing 14 points and nine assists.
To a man, the Arizona players emphasized that the way to keep UCLA in check is limiting transition opportunities and preventing Drew from slicing up the defense off the dribble. The senior point guard has shown an ability to set up teammates for easy buckets all year, though lately he has also called his own number more frequently.
"The key is to keep him out of the paint," Parrom said. "He's a pass-first point guard and he makes other guys better. Stay in front of him, and we'll be fine."
Arizona's last loss at UCLA was probably the low point of its season, the second defeat on a two-game Los Angeles road trip and the setback that knocked the Wildcats out of Pac-12 title contention. Nothing would make Arizona happier than to do the same to the Bruins in the Pac-12 tournament.
"They beat us at home and they won a tough game at their house," Mayes said. "We want to show that we can beat them. We're looking for some revenge."
- Sports & Recreation