LOS ANGELES - Believe it or not, the Arizona Wildcats are still in the best position to win the Pac-10 Conference championship.
It just didn't look that way Saturday.
Given a chance to clinch a tie for the conference title, with the possibility of celebrating their first outright title in six years at home next weekend, the Wildcats instead rolled meekly into a ball. Then they let UCLA big men Josh Smith and Reeves Nelson step by, on and over them in a 71-49 UCLA win at Pauley Pavilion that put the Bruins into a first-place tie with Arizona.
The Wildcats also stagnated offensively for the second straight game, shooting just 31.5 percent from the field in what was by far their lowest scoring output of the season.
The combination was explosive enough to create UA's worst loss of the season, its first two-game losing skid and a host of questions as the postseason nears - even though the Wildcats (23-6, 12-4 Pac-10) still can at least tie for the conference title by beating Oregon and Oregon State at home next week while UCLA must play at the Washington schools.
"What's happened to us is as we've gone on this (previous eight-game) win streak, our defense has steadily slipped, regressed," UA coach Sean Miller said. "It hasn't shown in the final score because our offense has been terrific. What's happened this weekend is we played against two teams that are excellent on defense. They took our scoring away and it really exposed our defense."
Nothing was more exposed than the paint area that Arizona was attempting to defend. Nelson, who is making a habit of clobbering the Wildcats inside, had 27 points and 16 rebounds while taking full advantage of double teams against the 305-pound Smith, who added 17 points of his own.
It didn't even matter that the Bruins shot a measly 2 for 11 from three-point range, because they made 62 percent of their two-point shots, darting around or sometimes simply bullying into the lanes on the way to easy baskets.
UCLA had 50 points in the paint, compared with UA's 22, and the Bruins clobbered Arizona on the boards, 40-26, tying the Wildcats' worst rebounding margin of the season.
"I don't think really anybody who was watching the game on either side expected to see a game like that," Nelson said.
Nelson's production, at least, couldn't have come as much of a surprise. Just a sophomore who was recruited by the Wildcats early in his high school career, Nelson has already made a habit of having his way with Arizona inside. Overall in three previous games against UA, Nelson averaged 17.7 points and 9.3 rebounds, with a particularly memorable 19 points and 10 rebounds that helped boot the Wildcats out of the Pac-10 tournament last season.
But Saturday, freed up a bit by UA's emphasis on Smith, Nelson went ballistic. He had 16 points and 10 rebounds in the first half alone, leading the Bruins on a 15-4 run at the end of the first half that gave them a 40-30 halftime lead.
Nelson was also there when UCLA closed out the final game on a 14-1 run, converting a three-point play on a layup and adding a fadeaway jumper.
"He's good," Miller said. "He really plays off Josh Smith well and a lot of his baskets tonight happened because we trapped the post. They had a really good plan against our post trap and they exposed us."
All that was just about the offense from Nelson and UCLA. Defensively, Nelson helped hold UA forward Derrick Williams to a relatively mortal 15 points on 5-for-11 shooting, while Williams took only four free throws.
"I know coach Miller is a really good coach and Derrick is at least a top-10 player in the country and is going to get drafted really high," Nelson said. "I've always enjoyed responding to challenges. I put it upon myself to guard their best player, and I also happened to have a good offensive game, so I'm glad for that."
The Bruins' attack on both sides of the court so damaged the Wildcats' psyche that Miller spent a season-high 35 minutes in the locker room with them afterward. Arizona made only one player available for media interviews, backup center Kyryl Natyazhko, who was short on explanations.
"I just feel we didn't play hard," Natyazhko said. "They were the better team today."
Asked for specifics, on several occasions, Natyazhko referred the questions to Miller, who talked about a few problems he hopes can be flushed away by a friendly return to McKale Center.
If the Wildcats sweep the Oregon schools, they will at least tie for the conference title and they will win it outright if UCLA loses one game in Washington.
"It's hard when you play in an atmosphere like this," Miller said. "Things get away from you, it really tests your togetherness and really tests your defense, and we didn't have a lot of either tonight.
"With UCLA playing its last game at Pauley Pavilion (before renovations next season), it was going to be a hard game to win. Now we have to go back to Tucson and try to take advantage of our crowd."
• Who: Oregon St. at Arizona
• When: 7 p.m. Thursday
• TV: FSAZ
• Radio: 1290-AM, 107.5-FM, 990-AM