LOS ANGELES -- UCLA got Reeves Nelson back just in time.
A week ago at Arizona, the Bruins blew a 14-point lead and lost without their tough-nosed freshman.
He returned Thursday after missing four games, scoring 18 points and grabbing 11 rebounds in UCLA's 75-69 victory over the Wildcats, a Pac-10 Conference tournament quarterfinal between two powerhouses that once ruled the league but have struggled this season.
The loss virtually ended Arizona's nation-best streak of 25 consecutive NCAA tournament appearances, though with a winning record, the Wildcats could land in the NIT.
"Unfortunately, it's not the NCAA tournament, but we're going to take what we can get," junior Jamelle Horne said.
Unless they can win the tournament, the Bruins likely aren't going anywhere except back to Westwood to contemplate how losing so much of their best talent to the NBA draft did them in.
Kevin Love would have been a junior this season, but he jumped to the NBA. Nelson is no Love, but he is the Bruins' only solid inside presence offensively.
"He has great strength," coach Ben Howland said. "When he has the ball, it's very hard to wedge it from him."
Nelson has been the gritty heart-and-soul of the Bruins all season, diving for loose balls and inflicting injury on himself. Wearing protective glasses, he played for the first time after missing four games with a slight retinal tear in his left eye.
"My legs were all right. When I first came in, they were really tired, but I got my second wind pretty quickly," he said, his only complaint being the glasses he worn on loan from the Los Angeles Lakers.
"They fog up sometimes. The nose piece falls out sometimes, and that's annoying. I just tried not to focus on the goggles."
Howland said, "He hates them."
"As I was telling the guys, 'I'm just really not ready to go home,'" Roll said. "Being out there is fun."
The Bruins (14-17) still have a shot at trying to improve what is their worst record since 2003-04, Howland's first season in Westwood. They advanced to a semifinal Friday against top-seeded California.
The Wildcats salvaged NCAA tournament appearances the last two years, extending their streak thanks mostly to the prestige built by the Pac-10. With a roster dominated by underclassmen, their chances of making it again seemed unlikely.
"Everybody knew from the beginning of the season that it would be tough. We barely made it last year, so it would be even tougher this year," Wise said. "It's just been a great accomplishment, and it's tough to have it end this year."
Arizona's NCAA tourney streak began in 1985 under Lute Olson, and ended with first-year coach Sean Miller, who noted he was 16 and "just learning how to drive" when the run began.
"Any coach that comes to Arizona is going to find he's a paranoid coach," said Miller, who arrived in Tucson in April to find Wise on the fence about returning for his senior season. "The reason I came to Arizona is to rebuild our program. We have a possibility to get a NIT bid. It's a terrific tournament. I feel very, very good about what we've been able to accomplish."
Lamont Jones is a freshman, but he came to Arizona fully aware of the streak.
"That's what everybody talks about," he said. "That's the history of the program and the culture of the program, and we just have to understand that. Unfortunately, we're not going to make it this year, but I guarantee we're going to get back there next year."
It's not just Arizona and UCLA that stumbled this season.
The entire Pac-10 has fallen nationally, and after getting six teams into the NCAA tournament each of the last two seasons, the league will be fighting to have two this time.
No schools better illustrate the league's current woes than Arizona and UCLA, which have won a combined seven Pac-10 tourney titles, with the Wildcats taking four in a row during one stretch.
Instead of playing for another title, though, the fourth-seeded Wildcats and No. 5 Bruins were relegated to an afternoon quarterfinal game in a half-empty Staples Center that had more Arizona fans than those rooting for the local Bruins.
Comedian Bill Murray, sporting a red visor over his spiky white hair, was among the Wildcat boosters. His son Luke is a graduate assistant on Miller's staff.
Arizona got to 58-55 with 7:52 remaining on two free throws by Solomon Hill. But the Bruins kept making free throws -- they hit 77 percent in the second half -- and Malcolm Lee hit a big 3-pointer to push their lead to 64-57 with 5 1/2 minutes left.
The Wildcats played catch-up the entire game, and trailed 37-33 at halftime.
"We're not a good defensive team," Miller said. "We'll be better in the future."
And hope is all Miller has to sustain him as he follows in the Hall of Fame footsteps of Olson.
"That's my only choice," he said.