LAS VEGAS --- The difference between elation and dejection for UCLA on Saturday night essentially came down to deceiving one of the nation's best perimeter defenders.
When Kyle Anderson drove right around a Jordan Adams top-of-the-key screen with the score tied and less than 50 seconds remaining, the UCLA point guard's job was to lure his screener's defender into trying to cut off his path to the rim. Arizona guard Nick Johnson took two steps to his left and could not recover in time, giving Adams the space to catch a pass from Anderson, set his feet and bury a 3-pointer that propelled UCLA to a scintillating 75-71 Pac-12 title game victory.
"It's a really hard play to guard," Adams said. "Nick has to help on Kyle or Kyle has a straight line to the basket. When they both help, I'm wide-open for a kickback. I looked back and once I saw Nick help, I got my feet set and focused on the shot."
Adams' 3-pointer was the signature moment of a UCLA victory that signals the Bruins (26-8) may be a team to be feared in the NCAA tournament.
Embarrassed after a stunning loss at Washington State in its regular season finale last Saturday, UCLA regrouped and refocused entering the Pac-12 tournament. The Bruins elevated themselves to a potential No. 4 or 5 seed in the NCAA tournament by clobbering streaking Oregon by 19 in the quarterfinals, smashing NCAA tournament-bound Stanford by 24 in the semifinals and handing fourth-ranked Arizona its fourth loss of the season in the title game.
"We've been really good all year, but I thought we just kind of missed that edge," UCLA coach Steve Alford said. "I thought we got our edge back after the Washington State game. These guys have been really committed. We've got an edge to us now, which is a lot of fun and to win a championship means a great deal."
UCLA received mixed reviews when it hired Alford to replace Ben Howland last spring, but the former New Mexico coach made all the right decisions Saturday night to set up the Adams shot.
With a full shot clock and 50 seconds remaining, Alford's first gamble was to design a play to get off a shot in the first 10 seconds in order to ensure UCLA would have another possession. The two-for-one is standard in the NBA but college coaches seldom have enough confidence in their players to execute that quickly.
"I don't like giving the other team the last shot, especially a team like that," Alford said.
"I trust these guys. I've got the best point guard. I knew he would deliver the pass the right way. I've got the best shooting guard, and Tony [Parker] does a great job screening. It's our money play."
It's such a money play that Alford actually refers to it by the name "money." And when he entered the huddle and suggested running that play, the reaction of his team gave him confidence in the call.
"These guys are cheering and jumping around," Alford said. "So when you have a team that excited to run something, you're crazy as a coach not to try it."
For Adams, the shot was especially memorable because of two moments that preceded it.
He broke his foot on the final play of last year's Pac-12 semifinal victory over Arizona, forcing him to sit out the rest of the postseason and spend much of the summer rehabbing. He also missed a nearly identical 3-pointer with 50 seconds left in UCLA's four-point home loss to Arizona in January.
"That shot haunted me for two days after I missed it," Adams said. "I'm glad I got the chance to take it again."
Adams' heroics provided a fitting end to a game that was riveting from start to finish because of the stakes, the high level of play and the raucous pro-Arizona atmosphere.
Anderson scored a team-high 21 points and grabbed 15 rebounds despite Arizona throwing three of the league's best defenders at him. Johnson answered with 22 of his own including a pair of huge second-half threes to keep the Wildcats within striking distance. Both teams made every hustle play, from Bryce Alford careening into his bench trying to save a deflected pass, to Johnson racing back on defense to make a pair of blocks, to Travis Wear skidding across the court to chase down a loose ball.
About the only sequence that wasn't flawlessly executed was Arizona's two possessions trailing by three points after the Adams 3-pointer.
One produced an ill-advised Aaron Gordon 3-pointer from the corner that failed to even draw iron. The second one resulted in a 3-pointer from Johnson that was blocked and another from Gabe York that clanked off the rim.
Once Tony Parker corralled the rebound to York's miss, UCLA could finally celebrate.
Every teammate on the floor walked up to Adams and either hugged or high-fived him to congratulate him on the shot that won UCLA the Pac-12 tournament and signaled to the rest of the nation that the Bruins are a team to watch the rest of March.
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