Pac-12 Tournament: UCLA’s offense too much for No. 4 Arizona

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Arizona found itself in an unlikely, and unknown, scenario in the Pac-12 tournament final: its defense was completely ineffective. UCLA came out and, possibly invigorated by a combination of butterflies and the oxygen pumped into the MGM Grand, proceeded to thump the Wildcats, 75-71 and claim the title.

The first twenty minutes were among the most entertaining during this conference tournament week, and even though the Wildcats were able to keep up with UCLA’s torrid scoring, Sean Miller’s squad hadn’t faced a team yet this year that didn’t fold under Zona’s grinding pack-line defense.

When Jordan Adams hit a three-pointer off a simple flare screen with 43 seconds remaining in the game, a shot that broke a 68-all deadlock, it wasn’t luck: Arizona just couldn’t stop UCLA today. Other than Adams’ three, the final minute was anticlimatic and sloppy, the opposite of what had been 39 minutes of pure basketball.

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Before delving into the game’s particulars, it’s necessary to mention how ruthless — in a good way — this rivalry between UCLA and Arizona has become. The two teams battled for every single possession, rebound, and loose ball — Travis Wear diving and nearly sliding from half court to end line should make ‘One Shining Moment’ even though the tournament hasn’t begun — and the intensity displayed by the fifteen participants was truly special. The first half offensive efficiency rating reflects the higher plane both teams operated on: 1.34 PPP (Arizona, on just 32 possessions!) and 1.25 (UCLA).

Since Brandon Ashley was waylaid with a foot injury, the play of Aaron Gordon has drastically improved, and the forward showcased the uniqueness of his game versus the Bruins. Gordon has now shifted to a true frontcourt role, operating from the interior while in the halfcourt, and his ability to be a triple threat has helped evolve his game as well as Arizona’s offense. Whether dishing to Kaleb Tarczewski for dunks, or using his height to find the other Wildcats on the perimeter, or simply operating off the bounce and getting to the bucket, Gordon has transformed into a bigger mismatch.

Yes, Gordon, and the rest of Arizona, missed a bunch of free throws — two of eight (and the team missed six of sixteen), to be precise — but Gordon has been making them in past games, and this figures to be a one-game blip rather than a significant issue that could preclude Arizona going deep into NCAA play.

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With the win, UCLA pulled ahead of Arizona as the Pac-12 best team. This offense, when it is humming, is so difficult to stop: even when the Bruins came down to Earth in the second half, they were still scoring 1.12 PPP. When compared to the offensive efficiency rate of Arizona’s three Pac-12 losses — each of which were around .90 PPP — it is clearer that the consistency and efficiency of UCLA’s buckets was unparalleled.

UCLA presents difficult covers at each position. The Wear twins were heroes of the short corner against UA, hitting jumpers whenever their defender tried to help a Kyle Anderson drive, and Tony Parker, the much maligned big who has become a new player under Steve Alford, grabbed several key rebounds and is a bear in the paint.

Regardless of the seed UCLA receives on Sunday evening, the Bruins will be a problem. The speed at which they operate (the team has hovered around 69 possessions this season), the improved play of Jordan Adams and especially Norman Powell, the aforementioned mismatch capabilities of the other Bruins, and the ability of Kyle Anderson to be a match-up dilemma for any player not named Aaron Gordon means UCLA will be one of those teams a top seed wants no business facing either of first two weekends.

Payne’s career game helps Florida beat No. 4 Auburn 69-47

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GAINESVILLE, Fla. (AP) Omar Payne had the best game of his college career, finishing with 19 points and 11 rebounds, and led Florida to a 69-47 victory over No. 4 Auburn on Saturday.

Payne, a freshman from Kissimmee, was widely considered an afterthought in Florida’s highly touted recruiting class. Against the Tigers, he looked like a future lottery pick.

The 6-foot-10 forward dominated in the paint, scoring on tip-ins, putbacks and layups, and creating a mismatch nightmare for Auburn (15-2, 3-2 Southeastern Conference). His three-point play, which came after an offensive rebound, put Florida (12-5, 4-1) up by 14 with a little more than 4 minutes to play.

The Gators sent the home crowd into a late frenzy – and to the exits – with a 14-0 run that included 3-pointers by Noah Locke, Keyontae Johnson and Kerry Blackshear Jr. Fans chanted “over-rated” in the closing minutes.

Locke and Blackshear finished with 11 points apiece for the Gators, who haven’t lost at home to Auburn since 1996. Blackshear added a season-high-tying 16 rebounds.

The Tigers have lost two in a row since starting 15-0.

Danjel Purifoy was the only player in double figures for Auburn, which shot 25.5% from the field. He had 10 points.

The Tigers struggled out of the gate, missing 15 of their first 16 shots. But Florida failed to take advantage of Auburn’s sluggishness, turning the ball over far too often for coach Mike White’s liking.

Auburn kept it close thanks to being perfect (10 for 10) from the free throw line.

The Gators led by five at the break and quickly built a double-digit lead coming out of the locker room. Nembhard, Johnson and Blackshear made consecutive baskets and then Payne followed with a putback and a layup that pushed the lead to 38-27.

Florida looked like it might really pull away a few minutes later, but Samir Doughty answered with back-to-back 3-pointers. Auburn’s leading scorer missed all four shots in the opening 20 minutes and didn’t record a single positive statistic.

BIG PICTURE

Auburn: The Tigers won’t win many, if any, games shooting like this. Purifoy made 3 of 11 shots and Doughty was 3 of 12 from the field.

Florida: The Gators finally look like a top-10 team. They opened the season ranked No. 6 but lost two of their first four games. White tweaked the offense, and the results are starting to show.

UP NEXT:

Auburn: Hosts South Carolina on Wednesday. The Tigers have lost four of the last six in the series.

Florida: Plays at LSU on Tuesday. The Gators have won four of the last five meetings, including two in overtime.

More AP college basketball: https://apnews.com/Collegebasketball and https://twitter.com/AP-Top25

No. 5 Butler loses second straight as DePaul gets first Big East win

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Paul Reed scored 23 points and shot 8-for-9 from the floor and 5-for-5 from the line as DePaul finally found a way into the win column on Saturday, pounding No. 5 Butler at home, 79-66.

The Blue Demons jumped out to a 22-6 lead early in the first half, and outside of a late first half surge that cut the lead to five, were never really threatened by the Bulldogs. Jalen Coleman-Lands finished with 19 points and Romeo Weekms added 11 as Dave Leitao’s club was able to land their biggest win of the season despite the fact that leading scorer Charlie Moore finished with just nine points to go along with his eight assists.

It helps that Moore was the only player that did not shoot the ball well for the Blue Demons. He was 3-for-13 from the floor and 1-for-4 from three. The rest of the team shot 18-for-30 from the field and 9-for-13 from three.

The truth is that DePaul, who entered the game in sole possession of last place in the conference with an 0-4 record, has been much closer to being this good than they have been to being a typical, winless DePaul program. They won non-conference road wins at Iowa and Minnesota — and we know how hard it is to win on the road in the Big Ten — while beating Texas Tech in overtime in Chicago. Their four losses have come by a total of 20 points, one of which came in overtime at Villanova.

Put another way, DePaul has taken as many tough losses as anyone in league play.

They were never going to be an easy out.

Butler found that out the hard way.

But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t start asking questions about the Bulldogs, who have now been outscored 123-88 in the last three halves of basketball that they have played. For a team that prides themselves on their defense, their execution and their ability to prepare for an opponent, this is worrisome.

The Bulldogs aren’t winning based on talent. I think you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone that is willing to say that Butler is more talented than DePaul. Where they make up the difference is in being able to blow up anything that a team wants to run against them while executing well enough offensively to be able to land a win.

They haven’t been able to do that since the first half of the loss to Seton Hall.

Now, this could be as simple as the Bulldogs shooting poorly and running into a couple of tough, athletic teams that got hot at the right time.

Or it could be a sign that Butler has been figured out.

Either way, the truth is that the Bulldogs needed to find an answer, because things do not get easier for them this week.

They head to No. 14 Villanova next.

No. 2 Baylor pushes winning streak to 15 with come-from-behind win at Oklahoma State

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STILLWATER, Okla. — Devonte Bandoo hit four threes in the final 11 minutes, including two in the last three minutes, as No. 2 Baylor rallied past Oklahoma State 75-68 for the Bears’ 15th straight victory. Oklahoma State has now lost five in a row.

Jared Butler scored 19 points and had six assists.

Baylor (15-1, 5-0 Big 12) has the second-longest active streak in the nation and the third longest in school history.

Freddie Gillespie had 17 points and four rebounds and Devonte Bandoo scored 12 of his 14 points in the second half for Baylor, which overcame a 12-point deficit in the last 20 minutes.

Isaac Likekele scored 16 points and added nine rebounds and five assists for Oklahoma State (9-8, 0-5). Cameron McGriff had 16 points and five rebounds while Thomas Dziagwa and Lindy Waters each scored 14. Oklahoma State shot 41%, the highest allowed by Baylor since Nov. 24, a span of 10 games.

The Bears trailed 47-35 with 14 minutes remaining but used an 18-4 run over the next four-plus minutes to get back in the game. When MaCio Teague hit a 3-pointer 8:41 left, Baylor had its first lead.

The teams exchanged leads four times down the stretch before the Bears sank seven of eight free throws in the final minute to seal it.

BIG PICTURE

Baylor: The Bears entered the day having trailed for a total of just 22 minutes, 13 seconds, over their previous nine games. Their largest deficit in that span was a 20-15 margin in the first half of a 67-55 win over then-No. 3 Kansas on Jan. 11. Oklahoma State led 36-27 at the half, just the fourth time this season Baylor wasn’t up at halftime.

Oklahoma State: After shooting just 30% or less in three of their previous four outings, the Cowboys found their mojo. Their shooting percentage was the highest in five games.

UP NEXT

Baylor: The Bears have a quick turnaround, hosting Oklahoma on Monday.

Oklahoma State: The Cowboys play at Iowa State on Tuesday.

No. 14 Villanova survives UConn, 61-55

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In a game with ever-changing momentum, Villanova’s Jermaine Samuels stepped up to make crucial shots as the Wildcats held on for a narrow 61-55 win over the Huskies.

In crunch time, the Wildcats turned to their experienced players — juniors Samuels and Collin Gillespie.

Samuels hit a three with 31 seconds left to give ‘Nova a four-point lead, ending the game with a team-high 19 points and going 4-of-6 from long. Collin Gillespie helped the Wildcats turn around a slow second-half start, scoring 10 straight after going scoreless for almost 27 minutes.

Jeremiah Robinson-Earl played an important role in the Wildcats’ win as well, knocking down four critical free throws to extend the lead at the end of the game. The freshman crashed the boards for a total of seven rebounds, including three huge offensive boards.

Villanova (14-3) closed the game on an 18-7 run to pull off the victory, as UConn (10-7) gave it everything they had, keeping it close to the very end.

The Huskies got out to an early lead over the Wildcats, with Akok Akok making impressive plays on both sides of the court — turning a blocked shot into a three-pointer on the other end. Akok led the team with three blocks, grabbing two of five first-half blocks. UConn made clear why it is one of the nation’s best shot-blocking teams, totaling six blocks on the game and forcing Villanova to hit perimeter shots by taking away the paint.

After getting off to a slow start, Villanova shot lights out from beyond the arc in the first half, going 6-of-11 and utilizing spacing to avoid UConn’s high-level shot blocking. Six different Wildcats sank one from deep as ‘Nova finished 11-of-23 on the day.

After the game, Villanova coach Jay Wright commented on the team’s two slow starts on the day, saying the team had to learn how to play every possession intently.

While UConn wasn’t able to keep up from beyond the arc — shooting only 2-of-15 — the Huskies took advantage down low, with a whopping 36 points coming from inside the paint compared to the Wildcats’ 12.

Turnovers also plagued the Huskies, as they lost the ball 17 times, which the Wildcats capitalized on to score 23 of their 61 points.

UConn is clearly on the rise under the coaching of Dan Hurley and made it a tough game for Villanova. The Huskies will rejoin the Big East next season, making this a rivalry to watch moving forward.