LAS VEGAS – University of Arizona guard Courtney Ramey attempted four unsuccessful shots, all from 3-point range, going into the final minute of Saturday’s Pac-12 Men’s Basketball Tournament championship game.
He didn’t let it define him.
With 18 seconds left, he nailed a stepback three to give Arizona a two-point lead that boosted the Wildcats to a 61-59 victory over the UCLA Bruins Saturday night to win their second consecutive conference title.
The anticipation surrounding the matchup brought with it uncertainty, as each team protected its house in the regular season meetings, with Arizona winning the matchup at McKale Center in January 58-52 and UCLA winning the contest at Pauley Pavilion 82-73 in early March. In addition, Adem Bona, the Bruins’ primary big man throughout the season, was out of the lineup.
As was the case in each of Arizona’s games in Las Vegas this week, the atmosphere was electric. The Wildcats’ red shirts in the crowd again outnumbered the Bruins’ blue. Despite that, the cheers throughout the game for the Bruins were at times almost as loud as those of their opponent.
“I think this fan base is the best fan base in the country,” Ramey said of the Arizona fans. “For them to drive so far and support us in the tournament, why not play your hardest and give your all. It means everything to us.”
Those who made the trip from Los Angeles, as well as those who came from Tucson, found plenty of reasons to cheer. The game began at a slow pace, with the first made basket from UCLA guard Amari Bailey coming a minute and a half into the game. Two minutes later, Wildcats forward Azuolas Tubelis drew a foul and made two free throws in response. Tubelis would end up the Most Outstanding Player of the tournament, tallying a double-double in Saturday’s game including 19 points and 14 rebounds.
“It means a lot. I didn’t get enough credit, I think, at the beginning of the season,” Tubelis said about the award. “My freshman year, everyone disrespected me. This trophy means a lot. I’m so proud of my team, and I’m so happy I can smile now.”
The dominant force of Oumar Ballo, who gave Arizona State loads of trouble Friday, was kept quiet early in the game by UCLA’s Kenneth Nwuba, who guarded the Wildcats forward for much of the night. Mac Etienne also kept pressure on Ballo down low, but as the game went on both Nwuba and Etienne fouled out of the game, and despite their best efforts, the Bruins simply could not stop Ballo in the paint.
The Pac-12’s all-conference honorees lived up to their nominations, with Player of the Year Jaime Jaquez Jr. achieving a double-double with 13 points and 10 rebounds and Most Improved Player of the year Ballo being Arizona’s second-leading scorer, with 13 points, for the second night in a row.
“I’m grateful for my teammates. They’re making the job easy for me, giving me the ball,” Ballo said. “For me to deliver, I’m just happy to be a part of this great program.”
The Wildcats donned throwback uniforms in honor of the 1997 team. Led by legendary coach Lute Olson, the team won the national championship over the Kentucky Wildcats 84-79. This year’s postseason quest to return to the NCAA championship begins Sunday with Selection Sunday, where coach Tommy Lloyd’s team will find out what seed it secures and where its first tournament game will take place.
“We’re built, we’re built to play a lot of styles. It’s hard to get in an up-and-down game with UCLA because they’re perfectly comfortable walking the ball up the floor and dictating the tempo,” Lloyd said. “We have a group that’s built to play in this tournament we’re about to start in. There’s no guarantees and you can’t make any assumptions, but I like our ability to win game to game.”