LAS VEGAS — UCLA’s Jordan Adams made sure the man in the blue bathrobe, sitting in the front row, saw what he had just seen.
Adams rolled off a screen to bury a three-pointer — while being bumped by Arizona’s Nick Johnson — with 45 seconds to play Saturday. It was a here’s-mud-in-your-eye basket that turned a tug-of-war game.
It gave the Bruins the lead. A little defense and a few free throws later, they had a 75-71 victory over fourth-ranked Arizona in the Pac-12 tournament championship game.
After putting UCLA ahead, 71-68, Adams ran upcourt, pointing at Andy Heyward, a UCLA alumnus and a familiar face at Pauley Pavilion who has entertained Bruins athletes at his home.
“I told you I’d do it,” Adams shouted.
Later, Heyward said, “At this point, it seems like this team can do anything.”
Maybe it can.
The Bruins (26-8) are off to the NCAA tournament having considerably improved their seeding possibilities. They did so by wrenching Las Vegas back from Arizona and its swarm-like fan base that infested the MGM Grand Hotel this week.
The MGM Grand Garden Arena was billed as a neutral site. If so, then so is a spider web for a fly.
“When you looked up from the court, you saw all red,” UCLA’s Kyle Anderson said.
Heyward chose the blue bathrobe to “stand out among all that red.”
Yet, after hearing that “U of A” chant in their nightmares for days, the Bruins cut down the nets postgame to the sound of “U-C-L-A, U-C-L-A.”
“Oh man, that was a great, great feeling to be able to quiet their crowd,” guard Norman Powell said. “Every time we walked around the hotel, whether it was going to the buffet or walking to the arena, we would hear that ‘U of A’ chant. It was like, ‘We got to beat them.’”
Powell and David Wear were the closers, each making two free throws in the final 10 seconds. But putting the ball in Adams’ hands was the back-breaker, and the deal-maker.
Players expended so much energy throughout the game that they looked like punch-drunk boxers down the stretch. The Bruins led by as many as 11 points in the first half. The Wildcats scraped back.
Both sides were so spent that the score remained tied, 68-68, for more than three minutes. A turnover spree left the ball in the Bruins’ hands with 52 seconds left.
There was no doubt about what was coming.
Coach Steve Alford called time out. “I come into the huddle and I say, ‘How about money?’” Alford said afterward. “And the guys start cheering and jumping around.”
Adams, who finished with 19 points, had missed a similar shot that would have tied the score late in the Bruins’ regular-season game against Arizona on Jan. 9. The Wildcats won, 79-75.
“That has haunted me for two months,” he said
It was exorcised when he sank the jumper.
“Jordan’s built for that,” Powell said. “He is always knocking down big shots.”
The Wildcats (30-4) came in with a defensive rep earned from smothering opponents. The Bruins were an offensive sideshow. Then they came out and matched the Wildcats scowl for scowl.
Only three teams have scored 70 or more points against the Wildcats. Michigan, and UCLA, twice.
The Bruins enter the NCAA tournament on a roll, having beaten Oregon and Stanford by a combined 44 points to reach the Pac-12 final.
“It shows we’re deserving of a high seed,” Wear said. “Doing what we did, winning back-to-back-to-back this week, is big time.”
Powell started the last act. He finished with 15 points, eight in a coming-out-of-the gates burst that left the Bruins leading, 19-9. It took the Wildcats out of their meat-grinder style that had buried Utah and Colorado in their first two tournament games.
“We made them play our type of basketball,” Powell said.
Which played into the hands Anderson, the tournament’s most valuable player. He finished with 21 points, 15 rebounds and five assists. He consistently got to the free-throw line, and made 10 of 13 once there.
Said Anderson: “This was the type of game that you watch at home and say, ‘I want to be a part of that.’”