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Friday, February 25, 2011
Pac-10 powers vying for first place

By Peter Yoon

And so here were are, UCLA playing Arizona in a crucial late-season Pac-10 game between the conference's two traditional powers.

UCLA (20-8, 11-4) trails No. 10 Arizona (23-5, 12-3) by one game heading into Saturday's showdown at Pauley Pavilion, so it's just another battle for first between teams that have combined for 21 conference titles since the Pac-10 was formed in 1979 -- more than all the other conference teams combined.

But even though it seems as if these two teams are always duking it out for first place, the last time they finished first and second in conference was 1995-96.  Still, in the 10 seasons from 1986-87 to 95-96, they were first and second five times, so it's no wonder this feels like old times.

"As far as I’m concerned, it’s great," UCLA coach Ben Howland said.

Both teams are coming off down seasons. Arizona was 16-15 last season and UCLA was 14-18. It was the first time since 1983-84 that neither UCLA nor Arizona cracked the 20-win barrier. But both teams, young and rebuilding -- Arizona forward Jamelle Horne is the only senior on either team -- have returned to the top as they head toward Saturday's 1 p.m. clash.

Adding to the excitement is the farewell to Pauley Pavilion in its current state. Pauley will be closed for remodeling next year and this is UCLA's last home game, so the school is planning a sendoff filled with pomp and circumstance. The Bruins hope to leave the building as a first-place team.

"It will be an electric atmosphere because it’s the last game," Howland said. "We want our guys to be excited. This is what you play for, to play against a great team like Arizona."

The last time these teams met, Arizona cruised past UCLA, 85-74.  In that game UCLA's Reeves Nelson made 10 of 12 shots and Malcom Lee made six of 12, but the remainder of the Bruins combined to go eight-for-34 (23.5 percent) from the field.

Tyler Honeycutt was 1-for-8 and Lazeric Jones was 0-for-7 and scored no points.

"It's going to be the most important game of the season, especially because we know how much better we could have played the first time we played them," Honeycutt said. "Everybody shot horribly and we still weren't that far out of the game. We don't want to let ourselves down or our fans so we're going to give it all we got, especially playing for the Pac-10 title right now."

Jones acknowledged that he was a little too excited to play against Arizona's Jesse Perry -- Jones' teammate at John A. Logan College last season.

"I feel like I’ll be more calm before the game," Jones said. "I feel like if I’m too up or too high then I might not do as well. So right now I’m trying to stay even with that."

Of bigger concern for UCLA will be trying to contain Derrick Williams, who is second in the conference is scoring at 19.3 points per game and is fifth with 8.2 rebounds per game. Williams, a 6-8 forward, also is also shooting 62.8 percent (27 of 43) on three-point attempts.

"That is stunning," Howland said. "As good as he is athletically. There’s really no easy answer to solving him."

Williams also leads the country in free-throw attempts and had 22 points, including several highlight-reel dunks on Jan. 27 against UCLA.

"He’s just a great all-around player," Howland said. "He can shoot threes, he can get to the basket. He’s got a great game in transition."

The Wildcats can clinch at least a tie for the conference title with a victory and they figure to have a little extra anger after a 65-57 loss at USC on Thursday night ended their eight-game win streak. Arizona, shooting 47.5 percent for the season, shot only 35.8 percent against USC.

"They really have an outstanding team that’s hard to scheme for because they have all these components to be really good," Howland said.

The circumstances surrounding the game -- UCLA is planning a "Blue Out" and video tributes to Pauley Pavilion -- figure to give the Bruins an extra edge in home-court advantage. But Lee warned that the Bruins can't get caught up in the emotion of the situation.

"We can't come out over hyped because sometimes that could come back and bite us in the butt," he said.

Still, when it's Arizona vs UCLA playing the last game in the old Pauley Pavilion with Pac-10 title implications on the line, it's hard not to realize what a big deal it is.

"Coach always says that the next game we're going to play is the most important game of the season and this is definitely the case with this game," Nelson said. "Arizona is a great team and we have a chance to be tied for first. ... I think everybody on the team knows how important it is and I'll be very focused."