LOS ANGELES - One by one, the long, proud Arizona basketball streaks of the Lute Olson era have snapped, their foundations having been shaken by years of instability and recruiting issues.
In 2006-07, the Wildcats lost at home by more than 12 points for the first time ever under Olson (by 28 to North Carolina). In 2007-08, they finished under .500 in Pac-10 play for the first time since 1984. Last season, they suffered their worst loss in more than a quarter-century at UCLA en route to a 2-5 conference start.
This season, they lost at home to Oregon State for the first time since 1983.
And now the big one is gone.
That nation-leading 25-year NCAA tournament streak ended Thursday when the Wildcats lost 75-69 to UCLA in the Pac-10 tournament quarterfinals, snipping the last shred of hope they had to capture the tournament and the automatic NCAA tournament berth awarded the winner.
The best the Wildcats can do now with their 16-15 overall record is hope for a bid Sunday night to the 32-team NIT, which is still likely but by no means guaranteed. The NIT hands out automatic bids to all regular-season conference winners who don't make the NCAA field, thus reducing its at-large invitations usually by six or seven.
The heavy weight of the streak, of course, was thrown in the lap of first-year coach Sean Miller last April, when he took over the program from Olson and two interim head coaches. He warned everyone at the Pac-10's preseason media day that the streak could "absolutely" end on his watch, but by then he had recruited so successfully, bringing in five capable freshmen last spring, that it was still considered possible.
So Miller tried again Thursday at the post-game interview podium to explain his view of the streak.
"I'll just speak candidly about this," Miller said. "No. 1, I got here in April, I looked to my left, Kyle (Fogg) was a freshman becoming a sophomore, and Jamelle Horne and him would be the two players coming back that had a role on last year's team. Nic (Wise) was undecided on whether to come back, and we didn't have a freshman.
"So when you start talking about an NCAA tournament streak, you have to ask yourself, 'how many bodies are you going to have?'…
"The reason I came to Arizona was to rebuild our program and hopefully one day get it to the level that everybody's watched. It's going to take a lot of hard work. It's not going to take one or two seasons."
That doesn't mean it was any easier to swallow, though, especially to Wise, a senior and veteran of three NCAA appearances who played with urgency the entire game Thursday while scoring a team-high 16 points with one assist, one steal and one turnover.
Wise said he knew even back in the preseason that the Wildcats would have a "mountain to climb" in reaching the NCAA field, yet believed, along with his younger teammates, that a conference tournament run was possible this week.
"It was a game our whole team really wanted," Wise said. "To come up short hurts a lot."
Even the team's freshmen felt the gravity of the streak, having heard about it constantly since arriving in Tucson last summer.
"I could see the fans being a little upset, because we had the longest streak," forward Derrick Williams said. "But it's a rebuilding season. We had three new coaches in the past three years."
The problem was that guys like Williams, who popped up practically out of nowhere to become the Pac-10's Freshman of the Year, helped win enough games to keep the possibility of a three-game run this weekend a possibility.
But, on Thursday, Williams was all but shut down by UCLA in the first half, taking just four shots and hitting one of them to total only two points before halftime. He finished with 14 points, but needed 15 shots to get there. He threw up three errant three-pointers, including one with 50 seconds left when the Wildcats still had a slim hope, trailing 68-63.
Combined with the fact that Horne contributed just three points and no rebounds, and that Fogg went 1 for 5 from three-point territory, and it was clear why UA never held a lead after the first 29 seconds, and never cut UCLA's lead under three in the final 18 minutes despite having swept the Bruins in the regular season.
"It just didn't happen," Williams said. "It's hard to beat a team three times in a row. We just couldn't get that last stop to push it to one."
More importantly, perhaps, was that they didn't get nearly enough early stops. For the fifth straight game, Arizona allowed its opponent to shoot 50 percent or better from the field in the first half, letting the Bruins gun at a 64 percent pace in the first half while building a 37-33 halftime lead.
"We're not a good defensive team," Miller said. "We've worked hard to get better. We'll be better in the future. It's been the Achilles' heel of us not being able to experience more success. But I'm confident … it's a system that will continue to grow and develop."
Eventually, Miller hopes, that system and the upgraded players he intends to feed into it, will grow into one capable of sustaining another long NCAA tournament run, a streak that Miller starts himself.
He has to look at it that way.
"That's my only choice," he said.
On StarNet: See more photos from the game at azstarnet.com/gallery
• NCAA: 3 p.m., Channel 13
• NIT: 6 p.m., ESPNU
END OF LINE
The streak of NCAA tourney runs is over at 25. Numbers (good and bad) to remember:
The most losses in a season (2009-2010) by the end of the Pac-10 tournament since the 1983-84 season (17 losses)
Final Fours, NCAA title for UA