UCLA stumbles again in 81-75 loss at No. 17 Arizona

Arizona coach Sean Miller says his Wildcats had "self-inflicted breakdowns" during their 87-84 loss at UCLA on Jan. 7. (Hans Gutknecht/Staff)

Arizona coach Sean Miller said his Wildcats’ defense had improved since a January loss at UCLA. (Hans Gutknecht/Staff)

Earlier this week, Sean Miller insisted that Arizona’s defense is better than what UCLA saw a month ago at Pauley Pavilion.

“Although I don’t think we’re night-and-day different, we have steadily improved,” said the Wildcats’ head coach.

Heading into the McKale Center on Friday night, UofA had only allowed two teams to shoot more than 50 percent from the field: UCLA and Oregon. It lost both those games, the first of which was punctuated by Bryce Alford’s game-winning 3-pointer at Pauley Pavilion. The latter, meanwhile, marked No. 17 Arizona’s first home loss since February 2013.

The rematch against the Bruins this week, Miller hoped, would see his players put in a much stouter performance.

The Wildcats did enough. After falling into a double-digit halftime hole in Tucson, Arizona closed out an 81-75 home victory. The foul-filled game, which saw UofA shoot 45 free throws to UCLA’s 16, marked the Bruins’ fifth loss in seven outings.

It may have very well ended their at-large NCAA Tournament hopes.

Isaac Hamilton made his first four shots, and finished with a game-high 24 points. He had 15 points in the first half alone, missing just two of his nine attempts. The Bruins (13-11, 4-7) shot 53.1 percent before the break.

However, centers Thomas Welsh and Tony Parker both fouled out with 5:55 left in the game, forcing UCLA to turn to a frontcourt of Jonah Bolden and Gyorgy Goloman — neither of whom have seen a consistent workload this season.

The Bruins held a 63-61 lead when Parker committed his fifth foul. They only made four field goals the rest of the way, two of which came on the final 50 seconds.

Arizona — which had lost just one of its last 51 games at the McKale Center — didn’t play the sort of up-tempo style that has been so troublesome for the Bruins this season. Averaging 69.1 possessions per 40 minutes, the Wildcats ranked seventh in the Pac-12 and 176th nationally.

That may have been part of the reason they converted just 29.6 percent from the field in the first half, enduring a streak of nine straight missed shots. Take out Parker Jackson-Cartwright, who hit a pair of 3-pointers in the first five minutes, and the Wildcats returned to their locker room at a miserable 5-of-23 clip.

Arizona climbed back thanks in large part to Allonzo Trier, who was playing in just his second game since breaking his hand last month. The freshman led the team with 18 points after not making a shot in the first half.