On a night where the heralded Arizona freshman class struggled to find a rhythm, two seniors proved to be the difference.
Behind perhaps their best defensive game of the season, along with 20 points from Dylan Smith and 17 from Chase Jeter, Arizona pulled out a 73-66 victory in the championship game of the Wooden Legacy over Wake Forest, the Wildcats’ first non-conference tournament title since the 2014 Maui Invitational.
“If Dylan Smith and Chase Jeter didn’t play the way they played tonight, I don’t know if we would’ve left here as champions.” said Arizona head coach Sean Miller after the game.
Wake Forest looked ready early, taking a 19-16 lead with 13:03 left on a 3-pointer by Torry Johnson. Despite being 277th in the country in 3-pointers made, the Demon Decons made three of their first four to start the game.
Momentum began to shift in the first half on back-to-back 3-pointers from Max Hazzard, part of an 11-0 run to put Arizona ahead 30-23 with 5:58 remaining.
Arizona didn’t trail the rest of the game, but was unable to put the Demon Decons away for good.
With Ira Lee and Zeke Nnaji both picking up their fourth foul in the second half, Wake Forest was able to attack the paint. Nnaji picked his fifth up with 4:15 remaining, with Lee following suit less than a minute later. A layup by Johnson with 2:17 remaining brought the score to 66-61. A Nico Mannion jumper and free throws by Smith and Josh Green eventually putting things away for good.
“We’re really resilient,” Mannion said. “We’ve got some tough guys that work hard and we all really just want to win. When everyone buys into that team game and works hard, a lot of good things can happen.”
Mannion finished the night with 9 points and 7 assists on 3-11 from the field, but was named MVP of the tournament for his strong performance over the three games, which included a game-winner on Thursday against Pepperdine. The freshman averaged 16 points and 7 assists for the week, shooting 51% from the floor.
“It’s big,” he said. “I wasn’t really thinking about that route, more about getting the win and playing as hard as I could. It’s more of a team thing at this point — we’ve got a big trophy we get to go home and celebrate.”
While the team has relied on their freshmen most of the season, the group struggled for most of the night. Nnaji finished with his worst game as a Wildcat, going 1-5 for 5 points and fouling out. Green struggled to shoot the ball with just 8 points on 2-8 from the field, but had 12 rebounds.
“We’ve got a deep team,” Smith said. “We’ve got a lot of professional players on this team. We have a lot of guys that play the right way and it makes it easy to play.”
Jeter and Smith were also named to the All-Tournament team for their performances this weekend. The duo each averaged 15 points a game, with Jeter shooting 77% from the floor.
“Each of those guys have taken a different path,” Miller said of Jeter and Smith. “They’re older, they’re experienced. I’m proud of the way they played in a game of this meaning, and I think it’s going to be something we can really call on as the year goes on.”
Arizona will have six days to rest and prepare for their matchup in Waco, Texas on Saturday against the No. 19 Baylor Bears.
“To be able to go to Baylor and play well I think is going to be one heck of a task,” Miller said. “I think that this experience will have helped us.”
Tipoff on Saturday is set for 10 a.m. on ESPNU.
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