TUCSON — It has been a glaring hole in the middle of the team. There is no question the UCLA Bruins have a superior backcourt. But, up front, especially at center, there are many questions.
With seniors Michael Fey and Ryan Hollins out because of injuries, and freshman Ryan Wright still learning on the job, the pressure has been on 6-foot-8, 235-pound sophomore Lorenzo Mata to fill the hole.
And fill it he did Thursday night at the McKale Center, providing key play after key play to help the Bruins beat the Arizona Wildcats, 85-79.
With guard Jordan Farmar injuring his right ankle again and Josh Shipp still fighting through the residual pain from September hip surgery, Mata's performance was crucial. In 19 minutes, he scored nine points, pulled down seven rebounds, had a blocked shot and provided a big body in the middle on defense.
"Everybody keeps saying we need an inside presence," UCLA guard Darren Collison said. "Lorenzo sure filled that need."
No argument from UCLA Coach Ben Howland.
"I think it was Lorenzo's best game as a Bruin," he said.
The win enabled the 17th-ranked Bruins to improve to 12-2 overall and 2-1 in Pacific 10 Conference play.
Although the Wildcats (9-4, 2-1) were below UCLA at No. 21 in the rankings, this UCLA victory could be called an upset.
Not only had Arizona won seven straight games, the Wildcats had won four in a row from the Bruins and eight straight in Tucson against UCLA.
And the Wildcats were coming off a potentially momentum-generating weekend in which they had swept Washington and Washington State on the road.
But the Bruins, led by Arron Afflalo's 20 points on nine-for-12 shooting from the field, outshot Arizona 60.8% to 52.5%.
Hassan Adams, the Wildcats' leading scorer, was the game's high scorer with 21 points. The Wildcats also got big numbers from their two forwards. Marcus Williams had 19 points and Ivan Radenovic had 17.
But the Arizona frontcourt couldn't sustain their edge when it came to rebounding. UCLA, led by Luc Richard Mbah a Moute's game-high nine rebounds and supplemented by Mata's seven, outrebounded Arizona, 29-26.
That made up for the one negative number that jumped out at Howland as he looked over the stat sheet afterward.
"We had 23 turnovers," he said. "It's hard to win with 23 turnovers."
It will also be hard for the Bruins to win if Farmar keeps getting hurt.
He turned his right ankle late in the first half Thursday, the same ankle he had sprained twice before.
When Farmar went out with 4:53 in the half, UCLA was clinging to a two-point lead.
While he sat on the bench as trainer Tony Spino retaped the ankle, Arizona went on a 6-2 run to surge into a 33-31 lead.
Back came Farmar.
Back came UCLA. The Bruins outscored the Wildcats 8-2 to finish the half. Included in that run was an over-the-shoulder, no-look pass by Farmar through a pair of defenders to Wright, who was all alone under the basket. Wright easily scored on a soft layup.
Farmar also scored with just sixth-tenths of a second left in the half, throwing the ball up from about 18 feet out as he fell backward to the floor, the result of a foul by Arizona guard Mustafa Shakur.
Farmar added the final touch by making the free throw as well, which gave UCLA a 39-35 halftime lead.
Arizona got to within two points on a jumper by Williams with 21 seconds to play. But the Wildcats, who were forced to foul the Bruins, could get no closer as UCLA made its free throws.
"Offensively we are a much better team when we're aggressive and driving," said Arizona Coach Lute Olson. "We settled for too many jumpers."
Maybe they just didn't want to mess with Mata.