5 takeaways from Arizona’s resilient run to the Pac-12 Tournament championship

LAS VEGAS — Unscathed in Las Vegas once again. 

No. 2 seed Arizona took down top-seeded UCLA 61-59 on Saturday night at T-Mobile Arena to win its second straight Pac-12 Tournament championship. The Wildcats are 9-0 in Las Vegas under  Tommy Lloyd — 10-0 overall going back to 2020. Lloyd is the only coach in Pac-12 history to have a 6-0 record in the conference tournament. 

Arizona also extended its conference-best Pac-12 Tournament championship total to seven, and the Wildcats did it by avenging previous losses to UCLA, Arizona State and Stanford — a revenge tour, if you will.  

As the Wildcats shift their attention to the NCAA Tournament, here are five takeaways from their championship weekend in Sin City: 

Arizona center Oumar Ballo (11) shoots against UCLA forward Kenneth Nwuba (14) during the first half of their game for the championship of the Pac-12 Tournament, Saturday, March 11, 2023, in Las Vegas.

1. Injuries hit at inopportune time

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Arizona center Oumar Ballo will enter the NCAA Tournament with a broken hand. Ballo, who was named to the All-Pac-12 Tournament team after averaging 17 points and eight rebounds in three games, revealed that he broke his left hand during the Wildcats’ semifinal win over Arizona State on Friday. 

“I dunked the ball and felt so much pain in my hand,” Ballo told the Star in Arizona’s locker room late Saturday.

Ballo, the Pac-12 Most Improved Player, has been playing with red tape on his right hand for a thumb injury he suffered in early February. Ballo played against UCLA on Saturday with black tape on his left hand. Ballo told the Star he plans to play in the NCAA Tournament.

“I’m good,” he said. “Just a collision, but I’ll be fine for next week.”

In a since-deleted tweet, Ballo posted a screenshot of an X-ray that showed an injury at the base of the ring finger on his left hand, with the caption: “Broke a hand against ASU yesterday and got a ring for it tonight.”

Playing with both hands taped up was a challenge for Ballo, especially against the Bruins. 

“Man, it’s hard. Playing against UCLA, they swipe every time we touch the ball,” Ballo said. “We just had to keep it high and avoid contact.” 

Fellow Arizona starter Kerr Kriisa enters March Madness with a right shoulder injury he suffered in Thursday’s win over Stanford. 

“Everybody’s banged up this time of year,” Lloyd said. “It’s really, really, really hard to play three games in three days. And I think all us coaches, if we had our druthers, we would get together and find a way to lighten the load on our players in these tournaments.

“In college basketball at the highest level, it’s hard to have great depth anymore because there’s so much parity. To ask six or seven or eight guys, whatever it is, to go play high-level basketball three straight nights is a lot, and so I think you’re going to see more and more of these teams across the country getting guys banged up. 

“So hopefully there’s a way we can kind of all rally around and get together and figure out a way to kind of lessen the impact on the players so teams can be closer to 100% come tournament time.”

Arizona forward Azuolas Tubelis (10) is defended by UCLA guard Jaime Jaquez Jr. during the second half of their game for the championship of the Pac-12 Tournament, Saturday, March 11, 2023, in Las Vegas.

2. One team’s loss is Arizona’s gain

The Wildcats weren’t the only team in the Pac-12 Tournament dealing with injuries. 

UCLA forward and Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year Jaylen Clark reportedly is out for the season with a Achilles’ injury, and Bruins center and Pac-12 Freshman of the Year Adem Bona suffered a shoulder injury in Friday’s win over Oregon. Bona, who was questionable for Saturday, was held out. He donned a gray UCLA jumpsuit and kept his left hand tucked into the front pocket of his hoodie during the game.

UCLA forwards Mac Etienne and Kenneth Nwuba fouled out and combined for three points and 10 rebounds in 33 minutes, which left Bruins forward and Pac-12 Player of the Year Jaime Jaquez Jr., who is 6-7, defending the 7-foot Ballo in the final minutes. 

“We compete. It’s five on five,” UCLA coach Mick Cronin said. “We don’t accept that somebody was out so you’re supposed to lose. We don’t roll like that.”

UCLA guard Tyger Campbell (10) passes the ball as Arizona guard Pelle Larsson (3) and Arizona forward Azuolas Tubelis (10) defend during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in the championship of the Pac-12 tournament, Saturday, March 11, 2023, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/Chase Stevens)

In the days leading into the Pac-12 Tournament, Lloyd was asked if he would consider extending Arizona’s bench beyond Pelle Larsson and Kylan Boswell. Lloyd’s response: “We’re going to go game to game. We’ll see. … I think we have some guys ready to help if needed.” 

Arizona played its usual seven-man rotation in the first two games of the Pac-12 Tournament before deploying wing Adama Bal, who hit two 3-pointers in the Pac-12 Tournament final against the Bruins last season, and freshman forward Henri Veesaar in the first half vs. UCLA; together, they played five minutes and had two rebounds. 

Lloyd said the decision to install Bal and Veesaar was because of “foul issues and three games in three days.” 

“I love Adama and Henri, and they’re going to be great players at Arizona, but we’re just unfortunately not able to use ’em quite enough now,” Lloyd said. 

“But I love our seven guys. I feel really good about our seven guys, about what we can do on the offensive end, what we can do at the defensive end, the versatility we can play with, the different lineups we can play with. I think it’s a pretty impressive seven dudes.”

Arizona guard Courtney Ramey, center, celebrates alongside teammates after their win over UCLA in an NCAA college basketball game for the championship of the men’s Pac-12 Tournament, Saturday, March 11, 2023, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/Chase Stevens)

4. ‘Built to play a lot of styles’

In a way, the Pac-12 Tournament was a microcosm of how the Wildcats have won several games this season. On Thursday, Arizona scored 95 points on 64% shooting in a win over Stanford, the third-most points scored by the program in a Pac-12 Tournament game. Then on Saturday, Arizona beat the Bruins in a game akin to the Wildcats’ 58-52 “rock fight” win over UCLA in January. 

The Wildcats didn’t score their first points until the 16:27 mark in the first half, when Azuolas Tubelis made two free throws. Arizona didn’t make its first field goal until the 14:56 mark. The two teams started the contest shooting a combined 1 for 13 from the field; the Wildcats and Bruins ended up shooting 37% on Saturday.

Arizona guard Courtney Ramey was 1 for 5 from 3-point range, but the one make was the most crucial field goal of the games: a go-ahead 3 to put the UA ahead 60-58. 

“I kept telling myself the next shot was going in,” Ramey said. “(Tubelis) found me, and my job was to make a play. So I was grateful for the shot to go in.”

Lloyd said “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.”

“And then they’re just so good defensively it’s hard to score on ’em quick,” Lloyd said.

Lloyd added Arizona is “built to play a lot of styles,” a trait that bodes well heading into the NCAA Tournament. 

“I think it says that we have a group that’s built to play in this tournament we’re about to start in,” Lloyd said. “There’s no guarantees and you can’t make any assumptions, but I like our ability to win game to game.”

Arizona forward Azuolas Tubelis holds up a piece of the net after the team’s win over UCLA in an NCAA college basketball game for the championship of the men’s Pac-12 Tournament on Saturday, March 11, 2023, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/Chase Stevens)

5. Learning from last go-around

It’s officially win or go home for Arizona. 

If there’s anything the Wildcats learned from their Sweet 16 loss to Houston in Lloyd’s first season at the helm last year it’s “rebounding and physicality.” The Wildcats were outrebounded and outscored in the paint by the Cougars. Tubelis had only two points and shot 0 for 8 from the field to go along with four turnovers and five rebounds. 

“That game was so physical, man. It was hard, and we learned,” Ballo said. “Me personally, I learned a lot from that. I need to be ready for that kind of game; rebound the ball and match their physicality and just keep the energy up.

“We were there last year, so we know how it feels. We know the feeling of winning and losing. We have to do everything we possibly can to stay winning.” 

“It’s an extra special honor for me,” Arizona head men’s basketball coach Tommy Lloyd said passing North Carolina’s Bill Guthridge for most wins (59) by a head coach in his first two seasons at the helm. Lloyd spoke to reporters March 9, 2023 after Arizona’s 95-84 win over Stanford in the quarterfinals of the 2023 Pac-12 Men’s Basketball Tournament at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas. (Via Pac-12)

Arizona men’s basketball coach Tommy Lloyd said he isn’t concerned with Arizona’s seeding in the NCAA Tournament or location of first and second rounds: “If you’re worried about that stuff after a 31-game regular season, then you’re worried about the wrong things.” Lloyd spoke to local media March 7, 2023 at McKale center, ahead of the 2023 Pac-12 men’s basketball tournament. Video by Justin Spears/Arizona Daily Star

Contact sports producer Justin Spears at jspears@tucson.com. On Twitter: @JustinESports

2023-03-12 22:03:45