Arizona basketball makes statement win in Tempe
Arizona State isn’t Florida or SDSU, and the strong Wildcat support at Wells Fargo Arena made it more of a neutral site than a rival’s house of horrors, but Arizona’s 71-54 victory in Tempe was its most complete win of the season.
A much improved Sun Devils team stayed with the Wildcats through a back-and-forth opening half. Once the intensity turned up, though, the UA clamped down on defense, attacked the basket with ease and showed its top-10 talent for the first time since Christmas Day.
“One of the reasons we ended up winning like we did is that our defense really returned to us tonight,” head coach Sean Miller said. “I’m sure they had some shots that they look at as ‘we gotta make.’ But for the most part I think our defense fueled us.”
The Wildcats held its rival to 39 percent shooting, including just 5-for-20 from three-point land. The Sun Devils best perimeter shooter and second-highest scorer, senior Carrick Felix, only made one of his seven attempts from beyond the arc and was held scoreless in the first half despite playing all 20 minutes.
Tyler Besh / Arizona Daily Wildcat Men's basketball vs ASU
“I think we’re playing with more confidence on the defensive end,” said senior Solomon Hill, who had 13 points and was the best player on the court according to Miller. “We can score with the best of them, but I think it’s about getting stops and pushing the ball.”
The mediocre performances Arizona submitted at the start of Pac-12 are a thing of the past, and it all seems to point back to the humbling defeat it received by Oregon. People love to throw out the idea of a “good” or “needed” loss, which is more or less a cliched justification. But at least for the time being, the Wildcats have seemed to make the most of the lesson they received in Eugene.
“Everybody was saying that we needed that Oregon loss and I believe it 100 percent,” said sophomore Nick Johnson, who had 19 points in an impressive game in his hometown. “[We’re] getting back to what we do, playing hard every single possession, playing defense. We’re going to go the farthest by playing that way.”
A team shouldn’t need to lose to return back to its top form. It’s hard to argue, though, with the stark contrast in play from Arizona’s first three conference games to its last two. The basketball gods gifted the Wildcats a win against Colorado, followed by the UA laboring through a home game against a conference bottom-feeder in Utah. The perfect 14-0 start finally came to a crashing end as the Pac-12 leading Ducks whipped the Wildcats by more than the 70-66 box score lets on.
“The Oregon loss, we got a little fat and happy,” Hill said. “Now we’re just refocusing in on the rest of the Pac-12. We had a great run going 12-0, but now we’ve got to continue to honor the process and get back out there.”
Arizona’s won its last two games by double-digits, and the 17-point victory against the Sun Devils included good to great play by the Wildcats from nearly every facet of the game. Instead of relying on perimeter shots, the UA attacked the basket frequently in the second half to finish with 32 points in the paint and four less three-point attempts than average.
Defensively, Arizona held the Sun Devils to 9-for-23 shooting in both the first and second half and forced 17 turnovers and 25 percent shooting from deep. If ASU didn’t uncharacteristically hit 13-15 free throws — nearly a quarter better than its 62.4 percent average — the game wouldn’t have even been a contest in the second half.
The only underwhelming performances were from the freshmen bigs.
They’ve yet to consistently be a factor this season, but against ASU two of the three still played fine. Kaleb Tarczewski won his battle against fellow 7-footer Jordan Bachynski, and Brandon Ashley played lockdown defense on Felix— the scoreless Grant Jerret was another story. Still, with as well as the Arizona big three played, the freshmen frontcourt did exactly what it needed to do.
“[The freshman] really got down with the Oregon game,” Hill said.
“They weren’t really effective on the offensive end but there’s something you can always control — the tempo, how much you put in the game, is something you can control. You’re not always going to hit the shot but you can rebound or get a stop.”
There’re still plenty of games left in the Pac-12 season and the Wildcats can certainly fall right back into a funk. At least for one afternoon in Tempe, though, Arizona proved it’s still the best team in the conference.