UCLA's conference showdown against Arizona was a game that carried the potential to boost the Bruins sky-bound or knock them in the knees once again.
Coming off a convincing win against rival USC in its Pac-12 opener, UCLA had the opportunity to dethrone the No. 1 team in the nation on Thursday, and more importantly, establish itself as one of the nation's premier teams after falling to Duke and Missouri in non-conference play.
As a prelude to the primetime matchup, the last time UCLA defeated a No. 1-ranked team was in 2003 against none other than Arizona in the Pac-10 Tournament.
UCLA came out of the gates full-force against Arizona.
Although the Bruins appeared to be harboring some jitters at the onset of the first half, they worked their way to an early 10-7 lead with 16:13 remaining. They forced a handful of turnovers on the Wildcats, who tallied 17 turnovers during the course of the game.
However, UCLA's momentum was soon thwarted by Arizona, which stole the lead with a 9-2 run that put the Wildcats up by four, 16-12, with 13:09 left in the first half.
Although UCLA shook off any advantage in Arizona's favor in the matchup of the frontcourts prior to the game, the Wildcats proved their proficiency in the paint against the Bruins.
Seven-foot center Kaleb Tarczewski and freshman phenom Aaron Gordon overwhelmed UCLA down low in the first half, boosting the Wildcats' lead to as many as six points as UCLA continued to claw to reclaim the lead.
UCLA was neck-and-neck on the boards with Arizona (Arizona 37, UCLA 36), which averaged a rebounding margin of 12.1 heading into Thursday's contest. But the Wildcats' Tarczewski nonetheless hacked away at the Bruins with a career-high 16 points. Arizona would go on to outscore UCLA 42-22 in the paint.
Arizona continued to fend off UCLA with its slick shooting, as guards Nick Johnson and Gabe York drained five three-pointers in the first half. The Bruins, conversely, were a mere 1-for-6 from deep in the first half, but it was that one three, from the hands of Bryce Alford, that tied the game for UCLA after they'd been trailing for nine minutes.
The Bruins swiped the lead with a 9-2 run and were up 31-29 with 4:19 left to go in the first half. Both teams went back-and-forth in the concluding minutes of the first period, but Arizona held onto a four-point lead, 42-38, heading into the locker room.
Arizona began the second half as one might expect the nation's top-ranked team to do.
With UCLA on its heels, Arizona jumped out to a 12-point lead to start the second half and was up 60-48 with 11:22 remaining in the game.
With one of its best defenders, Norman Powell, out of the game after picking up his fourth foul with 12:07 to go, UCLA caught a break of its own when Gordon had to be sidelined for a stretch after picking up two fouls in less than two minutes and flirting with a foul-out at four fouls.
Yet, the Wildcats not only maintained but increased the lead with Gordon out, spurting to a 13-point lead with 6:16 left on a dunk from Johnson, who finished with 22 points on 9-of-15 from the field; his sixth 20-plus-point performance on the season.
"I am the old guy on the team and they look to me for leadership," the 6-foot-3 junior guard said. "I am conscious about being a role model because we have a very young team."
Arizona's dominance of the second half appeared to be adding another page in UCLA's chapter of poor second-half play against tough opponents. But the Bruins quickly turned it around down 13 points to the nation's No. 1 team.
Sophomore Kyle Anderson and freshman Bryce Alford rallied on a 10-0 run to bring the Bruins within three, and then Jordan Adams sank a clutch trey to tie the game at 68 with 2:23 remaining on the clock.
Alford, who finished with 12 points, then pushed UCLA past Arizona, 70-69, with a pair of clutch free-throws after the Bruins uncharacteristically missed key free throws that could have narrowed the gap earlier in the second half.
"That's big," UCLA head coach Steve Alford said. "You miss five free-throws in a row in a stretch where, instead of the game staying at [a] two-,four-, six-point deficit, we're down double digits. That was a big stretch."
With a sellout crowd of 13,283 roaring and the Bruins holding their first lead of the second half, Johnson came up big yet again for Arizona and put the Wildcats up 71-70 with 1:27 to go.
The Bruins then botched their chance to recapture the lead with a turnover from Bryce Alford, and Arizona capitalized on a foul that sent Gordon to the charity stripe with 1:03 remaining. Gordon, a 45-percent free-throw shooter entering the game, drained both free-throws and put his team up 73-70.
Out of a timeout, UCLA drew up a play that found Jordan Adams open in the corner with a chance to tie the game, but his three-pointer didn't fall. After Arizona made a free-throw on the other end, the Bruins again botched their chance to narrow the deficit with an Anderson traveling violation.
"I thought it was perfect," said Adams, who finished with 12 points. The Bruins' top scorer was 4-for-15 from the field but pulled down 11 rebounds for his second career double-double. "Coach drew up a great play when we were down three. I thought it was going in; it looked great, but it came up short."
The Bruins pressured Arizona by sending the Wildcats to the foul line in the final minutes, but the Wildcats missed only two free-throws in eight attempts.
With all hope of an upset over its in-conference rival seemingly snuffed, UCLA clawed back with a timely three from LaVine, made from well beyond the arc, that put the Bruins within two, 77-75, with 15 seconds remaining.
Arizona's Gabe York then made a pair of free-throws with 12 seconds left after being fouled by Adams, who fouled out for only the second time in his career.
With Adams on the bench for the final ticks, the Bruins relied upon LaVine for a three-pointer on the ensuing possession, but his ambitious attempt was off the mark.
Fittingly, the game ended with the ball in Johnson's hands and his Wildcats prevailed, 79-75, over UCLA to remain undefeated at 16-0.
"This was a great victory for our team," Arizona head coach Sean Miller said. "Playing here in Pauley with a great crowd and a great team that they have, it was a great win. We battled through and were resilient and came out with a win."
"There's going to be games where you don't shoot the ball well; that doesn't bother me. It's the effort that would bother me," Alford said of his team, which shot 40 percent on Thursday. "I take my hat off to our guys. I thought Arizona did a great job with effort but I thought our guys gave great effort."
"I think we did all that we could. We fought hard," said Anderson, who finished with 16 points, 11 rebounds, and six assists. "I'm not one for moral victories, but we did fight hard. Everybody gave effort. We got to shake it off and get ready for this weekend."
After Thursday night's loss, the Bruins are now 0-3 against teams currently ranked in the Top 25.
UCLA will next face a team that has beaten a Top 25 team: Arizona State.
The Sun Devils have received little attention with Arizona, Oregon and Colorado all nationally ranked, but they nonetheless boast a 12-3 record, including a win over then-No. 25 Marquette.
"Arizona State's huge. We need to get 13-3 and 2-1 going on the road trip," Alford said. "This is a very demanding league, and so, we got to get confidence with another win before we go out on the road."