The University of Arizona basketball team’s 25-year streak of NCAA Tournament appearances is over.
The Wildcats, needing to win this week’s Pac-10 Tournament to qualify for the 65-team NCAA field, lost to UCLA, 75-69, on Thursday in the quarterfinals of the conference bracket at Staples Center in Los Angeles.
With a record of 16-15, the best Arizona can hope for is a berth in the NIT, which begins with opening-round games Tuesday and Wednesday and which concludes March 30 and April 1 with the semifinals and finals at Madison Square Garden in New York City.
Prior to this year, the Wildcats last missed the NCAA Tournament in 1983-84, which was Lute Olson’s first season in Tucson. Olson took Arizona to the Big Dance in 1984-85, and the Wildcats went on to establish a run of 25 consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances that was the longest active streak in the nation.
The quarter-century streak will end this season, which has been a rebuilding campaign for first-year head coach Sean Miller. After an up-and-down regular season that saw Arizona finish in fourth place in a down year in the Pac-10, the Wildcats’ last chance to qualify for the NCAA bracket was to sweep through the conference tournament.
Arizona’s quest ended abruptly with its first-round Pac-10 Tournament exit. After rallying in the second half to defeat UCLA last week in Tucson, the Wildcats were unable to do it again in Thursday’s matchup, falling behind 3-2 in the opening minute and trailing for the remainder of the contest.
UCLA freshman forward Reeves Nelson, who missed last week’s Bruins-Wildcats game with an eye injury, returned to the lineup Thursday and led all scorers with 19 points on 8 of 9 shooting. Nelson also pulled down a game-high 10 rebounds.
In addition, fifth-seeded UCLA (14-17) got 18 points each from forward Nikola Dragovic and guard Michael Roll. The Bruins shot 53.2 percent from the field, making 25 of 47 shots.
Arizona, meanwhile, made just 26 of 65 field-goal attempts for 40 percent.
The Bruins led by as many as nine points in the first half and held a 37-33 advantage at the intermission.
The fourth-seeded Wildcats closed their deficit to 39-38 on a three-pointer by Jamelle Horne with 18:36 remaining, but UCLA answered with a triple by Dragovic and went on to increase the margin to 53-44 on two free throws by Dragovic with 11:58 left.
After the Wildcats pulled to within 61-57 on a layup by senior point guard Nic Wise with 6:09 remaining, UCLA responded with a three-pointer by Malcolm Lee to make it 64-57. The Wildcats never drew closer than five points over the final 5:36.
Wise, who was named to the All-Pac-10 Team earlier this week, led the Wildcats with 16 points. Arizona forward/center Derrick Williams – also an All-Pac-10 selection as well as the league’s Freshman of the Year – finished with 14 points and a team-high eight rebounds.