Wildcats basketball shows improvement in three-point defense, rebounding
The No. 12 Arizona men’s basketball team’s past few games have been a tale of two halves on the defensive end. The disparity between the two 20-minute periods was so great that head coach Sean Miller and senior Solomon Hill both questioned the team’s effort, using words like “pathetic” in Tuesday’s press conference.
“The good news is that we may be one of the best defensive teams in the country until halftime,” Miller said Tuesday. “And then — especially recently — after halftime we’re pathetic.
“I don’t know if I’ve coached a team that has more of a discrepancy.”
In the opening half of play Wednesday night, the story was the same. The Wildcats cracked down on defense, kept Washington away from the free throw line and went into the locker room up eight, 33-25.
It was in the final period of play that things changed for the better.
The Huskies started the second half 3-for-15, causing the Wildcat lead to balloon to 22 points. Most importantly, the Wildcats maintained their intensity to pull off a comfortable 70-52 victory in McKale Center.
“We brought it today,” Hill said after the game. “We started off rebounding hard; Washington is always a team that offensive rebounds to get itself going. And then Nick [Johnson] did an excellent job guarding C.J. Wilcox.
“We did a great job guarding them from the three … which is something we need to build on.”
Before Wednesday night, the second-half numbers were troubling for the Wildcats. While their opponents shot 40.2 percent in the opening half of the past five games, the numbers spiked to an exceptionally high 50.4 percent in the final 20 minutes.
The first half was more of the same, as Washington hit 11-of-31 to start. The intensity finally continued into the second half, though, as the Huskies shot even worse (26.5 percent) to finish the game.
Miller reminded reporters that Arizona has wins over top-five teams in Miami and Florida. The reason for those wins, in his mind, was his team’s defensive play — the same type of play they had Wednesday night.
“For us down the stretch, if we’re going to be good in March or finish this deal off like we want to, this defense has to be in place from start to finish,” he said.
Hill’s main gripe entering the game was that he felt effort was lacking in the second half of games. For Hill, that effort was finally there and the results made the game what it’s supposed to be — fun.
“It was a fun game,” Hill said. “One thing we said before the game was, ‘Have fun,’ I think we had really got away from that.”
“I think at one time we had four blocks on one possession, things like that where guys are playing all-out and trying to help a teammate makes the game a lot easier.”
Arizona outrebounded an aggressive Washington squad 43-37 and had eight blocks on the night. Arizona also held the Huskies to 1-for-11 from behind the three-point line, an area it has struggled at all year.
It all added up to Arizona’s most dominating performance since Jan. 25, when it comfortably dropped USC at home 74-50.
It didn’t always look so easy, though, and when the second half started Miller wasn’t seeing the effort he wanted from senior Kevin Parrom on defense. The forward was beat three times out of the gate in the first two minutes, and Miller quickly sat him on the bench.
The move worked, as Washington scored only two points in a 5:43 stretch early in the second half.
“We are who we are; [defense] is our strength,” Miller said. “We always have to give great effort.”
It wasn’t a complete turnaround for Arizona, though, as Hill brought up second-half fouling after the game. Washington shot only four free throws in the first half; it had 14 in the second.
This trend dates even further back than the last few games, though. The Wildcats have been hack-happy in the final minutes of play, starting with their home loss to UCLA. Including that game, teams have shot three times more attempts from the line in the second half (128) than the first (40).
That issue aside, the Wildcats finally brought the effort they’ve been lacking as of late.