Defensive performance fuels key win for Arizona
PHOENIX -- Arizona men’s basketball outlasted No. 7 Texas A&M 67-64 in the Valley of the Sun Shootout using a formula that had been foreign to it seven games into the season: defense. It’s what an Arizona basketball game usually feels like but had disappeared until now.
“I thought this was our best defensive effort of the year,” head coach Sean Miller said.
The Wildcats held the previously undefeated Aggies to their lowest point total of the season and mostly contained a powerful A&M frontcourt. 6-10 forward and projected NBA lottery pick Robert Williams scored just four points on six shots. His partner in crime, center Tyler Davis, was the leading scorer for the Aggies with 21 points but a crucial travel call against him with seven seconds left kept the Aggies from getting their eighth win.
“They were just double teaming on different possessions, on and off,” Davis said.
Arizona’s frontcourt of its own was up to the challenge. Freshman forward Deandre Ayton scored 13 points and collected ten rebounds while senior center Dusan Ristic also had 13 points. With the game on the line, Ayton’s towering 7-foot, 260 pound frame stood in the way of Davis who was going towards the rim with the Aggies down the two. Ayton’s presence and defensive awareness helped lead to the Davis travel.
“I thought the ball was coming into him,” Ayton said. “I saw the guard penetrated down the lane and I was just anticipating him to come to the rim.”
Arizona did what it had not been able to do against less superior teams and it could not have come at a better time. Defensive rebounding, effort and late-game execution were all on display in UA’s nail-biting win. The Wildcats held A&M to 5-14 on 3-point attempts, had 25 defensive rebounds compared to A&M’s 23 and shut down the Aggies in the waning minutes of a close contest.
“Sometimes guys have to learn how hard you have to play,” Miller said. “I mean when you’re in the Bahamas and you’re playing three games in three nights, it’s not easy… and I think the last two games these guys have a much better understanding of what it takes to win.”
The guy who won’t get the credit he’s due is Parker Jackson-Cartwright. The senior point guard had a scrappy defensive performance, diving for loose balls and also came away with two steals. His timely go-ahead 3-pointer with 1:55 remaining ultimately gave Arizona a lead it wouldn’t relinquish.
It wasn’t all sunshine and happiness, though. There are still holes in the Arizona defense; they just aren’t as gapping and visible as they once were. The Wildcats still allowed easy scores off inbounds passes and got dominated in the paint. Texas A&M scored 40 of its 67 points down low.
Still, for a team that was called out for not wanting to play defense less than a week ago by their head coach, a performance like this could be a stepping stone moving forward.Miller also anticipates that sophomore guard Rawle Alkins will return in the next week or two and cites that his presence will alleviate some of Arizona’s problems as well.
For now, it appears that Arizona found the light at the end of the tunnel that it so desperately needed to reach.
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