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Arizona caps Tommy Lloyd’s first conference tournament with title

Updated March 12, 2022 - 9:38 pm

What a difference a year can make.

What a difference a Tommy Lloyd can make, too.

Arizona’s renaissance is complete, thanks to a 84-76 victory Saturday over UCLA in the Pac-12 tournament championship game at T-Mobile Arena before a raucous crowd of 14,401. The Wildcats, seeded No. 2 nationally, pair the tournament title with their regular-season conference crown — ensuring a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.

Lloyd, their first-year head coach who moved to Tuscon, Arizona, by way of Spokane, Washington — where he was Gonzaga coach Mark Few’s lead assistant — won with the same nucleus that Arizona’s disgraced former coach, Sean Miller, guided to a 17-9 mark a year ago.

The nucleus is good enough to win the national title next month in New Orleans, too, after capturing the program’s first conference tournament title since 2018.

“It’s surreal. I’m going to be honest. … I didn’t quite expect it,” Lloyd said during a postgame interview on the playing surface. “But when I got together with this group of misfits, we knew we had something special. These guys are special.”

Miller was ousted last April, ending a tenuous tenure rife with winning and controversy. The program in 2017 was entangled in a federal investigation surrounding corruption in college basketball. The NCAA levied the program with violations, eventually resulting in a self-imposed one-year ban from NCAA Tournament play that ended in 2020-21 — and Miller’s dismissal.

Paving the way for Lloyd to take over.

The Wildcats (31-3) are built around Pac-12 Player of the Year and sophomore wing Bennedict Mathurin and junior 7-footer Christian Koloko, the league’s newly minted Defensive Player of the Year. Sophomores Azuolas Tubelis, Dalen Terry and Kerr Kriisa round out one of the best starting lineups in the country, providing size, versatility, scoring and shooting.

The league’s media picked the Wildcats to finish fourth in its annual preseason poll, but that lineup powered Arizona to a 28-3 record in the regular season. Lloyd rejiggered the way Arizona plays and constructed an offense based on ball and player movement with Mathurin leading the charge.

He scored 27 on Saturday to help the Wildcats overcome a 12-point deficit in the second half. Koloko had 13 points, 10 rebounds and four blocks, deterring UCLA’s drives through the force of his stature. Terry added 15 points, seven rebounds and seven assists.

The Bruins (25-7) built their lead by relying on their backcourt of Jaime Jaquez Jr., Johnny Juzang, Tyger Campbell and Jules Bernard. The four keyed a Final Four berth last season and combined for 67 points. But their offense alone couldn’t overcome a 5-for-22 effort from 3-point distance.

Because of its guard play, UCLA remains a Final Four contender, though its lack of size is noticeable against teams like Arizona. Lloyd coached against the Bruins last year in the Final Four with Gonzaga and credited their program afterward.

“I hope we can have continue to have a great rivalry, because I think it would be great for the conference,” Lloyd said.

He, too, is great for the conference.

And obviously, for Arizona.

“I can’t wait to get home. … find out where we’re going tomorrow,” said the 47-year-old from Kelso, Washington. “And look forward to kicking some ass.”

Contact Sam Gordon at sgordon@reviewjournal.com. Follow @BySamGordon on Twitter.

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