UCLA needed to finish strong to win its first regular-season conference title since 2008.
It had to do the same thing to advance past its opening-round game of the Pac-12 tournament.The 21st-ranked Bruins go for their ninth victory in 11 games when they meet No. 18 Arizona in the semifinals Friday night.Despite a rough 1/3 stretch in league play to end January -- the lone win was 84-73 at then-No. 6 Arizona on Jan. 24 -- UCLA (24-8) closed 7-2 to finish a game ahead of the Wildcats (25-6), Oregon and California.However, it appeared that the Bruins' trip to Las Vegas would be a brief one, as they trailed by as many as 15 points in the second half of Thursday's quarterfinal against Arizona State. UCLA, though, rallied behind a career-best 20 points from senior point guard Larry Drew II and 16 from co-Pac-12 freshman of the year Shabazz Muhammad, who scored 12 after halftime."These guys never quit. They never gave up," coach Ben Howland said after the 80-75 victory. "They never stopped believing in themselves and each other and really found a way to battle back."That's been the theme of the season for the Bruins, who, in large part to one of the top freshman classes in the country with Muhammad, Jordan Adams and Kyle Anderson, are headed back to the NCAA tournament after failing to even earn an NIT bid in 2011-12.A 66-58 quarterfinal loss to Arizona in the 2012 Pac-12 tournament put a wrap on UCLA's 19-14 season.The Wildcats, who lost to eventual tournament champion Colorado in their next game, avenged that defeat with Thursday's 79-69 victory."It seems like every time we get together with them, we play these very physical, tough games, and today was no different," said coach Sean Miller, whose team is after its first conference tournament title since 2002.The Wildcats are hoping Friday's result is different than the first two with UCLA this season.The Bruins, in their home finale, clinched a first-round bye in the Pac-12 tournament with a 74-69 victory over Arizona on March 2. It was the first time UCLA swept the regular-season series since 2007-08.Muhammad led UCLA in scoring in both games, totaling 41 points.Anderson and David Wear totaled 25 points apiece, with Anderson's 19 rebounds leading all players in the two contests.Sophomore guard Nick Johnson, who finished with a team-best 18 points on Thursday, paced the Wildcats with 33 points in the two meetings with UCLA.All-Pac-12 point guard Mark Lyons totaled 29 points for the Wildcats but handed out one assist and committed 10 turnovers.Drew, who had nine in each matchup, is six assists shy of passing Brandon Granville, Russell Brown and Gary Payton for third on the conference single-season list with 249.Arizona senior forward Solomon Hill, a first-team All-Pac-12 selection, is 13 rebounds shy of tying Jordan Hill for 10th-most in program history with 763. He had 25 points and 12 boards -- both the second-highest totals of his career -- in last season's Pac-12 tournament victory over UCLA.The Bruins had won the previous three conference tournament games between these teams.