TUCSON - With seven straight victories over Arizona, UCLA has supplanted the Wildcats as the Pac-10’s dominant team.
Still, the fourth-ranked Bruins felt lucky to escape McKale Center with a 68-66 win on Sunday afternoon, behind freshman Kevin Love’s 24 points and 15 rebounds. The Bruins had to withstand a potential tying shot by Jerryd Bayless, which came up short.
The loss dealt a blow to Arizona’s hopes of extending the nation’s longest active NCAA tournament streak to 24 years. The Wildcats (17-12, 7-9 Pac-10) have lost six of seven.
“We knew we were going to get their very best effort today,” UCLA coach Ben Howland said. “Obviously it would have put them in the tournament if they would have won today.”
The Wildcats played with uncommon intensity on a day that Lute Olson, who has been on a personal leave of absence since Nov. 4, appeared on the floor to honor Arizona’s seniors after their last scheduled home game.
Olson did not address the crowd and did not speak to reporters afterward.
Arizona’s emotions weren’t enough against the more talented Bruins, who are bidding for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.
“UCLA is a team that is difficult to guard, difficult to score against, and they play like a team that is desperate to win a Pac-10 championship,” Arizona interim coach Kevin O’Neill said.
UCLA (26-3, 14-2), remained one game ahead of No. 8 Stanford in the Pac-10 race. The Bruins meet the Cardinal on Thursday night in Los Angeles.
UCLA blew an 11-point first half lead and fell behind 47-43 early in the second half. But the Bruins rallied behind Love, who scored 15 points after intermission and had his 18th double-double.
“Kevin Love is a big dude,” said Arizona’s 6-foot-6 Fendi Onobun, who fouled out while guarding the 6-10 Love. “It was tough having to play behind him the whole game.
Love scored seven straight points late in the second half, capping the spurt with a three-point play that gave UCLA a 65-61 lead with 3:18 to go.
But Love gave the Wildcats a chance at an improbable comeback when he threw a pass away in the final minute, and Bayless capitalized with a layup that cut the Bruins’ lead to 67-65 with 50 seconds left.
UCLA led 68-65 after UCLA’s Russell Westbrook made 1 of 2 free throws with 14 seconds to go. O’Neill said he told Bayless he could try to tie the game with a 3-pointer or, if it wasn’t open, drive for two points.
Bayless found no room on the perimeter, so he drove to the basket, where he was fouled by Love.
Bayless made the first free throw and missed the second, but the Bruins knocked the ball out of bounds with 5 seconds to play, giving the Wildcats one last shot. With no timeouts left, they could only manage an off-balance prayer by Bayless at the buzzer, which came up short.
“We had no timeouts left, so there wasn’t much we could do or set up,” O’Neill said.
Chase Budinger had 24 points for Arizona.