Pressure zone defense or lack of focus, excuses matter not when 27 turnovers are involved.
If the Arizona Wildcats needed a thump on the head to be reminded that lost focus could lead to a lost game, Tuesday night's 63-55 win against Southern Miss in McKale Center probably gave Sean Miller's team just that.
The Wildcats and Golden Eagles combined for 50 turnovers on the night in a low scoring battle that saw UA escape with a win. Whether they deserved it or not, well, doesn't really matter. Arizona overcame the turnovers, an ugly first half and their size being negated to squeeze out the victory.
Donnie Tyndall's team, with its lack of size, took the blueprint from Arizona's season-opener against Charleston Southern to make the Wildcats' youthful size a disadvantage. The Golden Eagles used a zone and beat up UA on the offensive glass to get 16 more shot attempts by game's end. And looking to the future, the sketchy UA victory was a good example of just how to beat the Wildcats.
Nick Johnson, save for six turnovers of his own, can take a good deal of the credit for UA's win. He scored a career high 23 points, had four assists and four steals, and was the catalyst in the game's turning point.
Both teams started sluggishly, and Southern Miss led 10-3 as the Wildcats turned the ball over and couldn't handle the speed on the interior.
Halfway through the first half, both teams were shooting 25 percent from the floor, but the Golden Eagles had doubled up UA in shot attempts (16 to eight), led the offensive rebounding battle and had fewer turnovers. Arizona turned the ball over against an extended zone defense that trapped effectively on the wings, and center Kaleb Tarczewski had three early turnovers and two early personal fouls against the small but speedy frontline of Southern Miss.
Arizona trailed 35-27 at the half while shooting 35 percent from the field and 9-of-16 at the foul line. Mark Lyons was 0-for-5 from the field himself. His night only added to the question marks, as he scored four points on 0-of-7 shooting while missing five threes and turning the ball over three times to his two assists.
Johnson had everything good to do with the first six Arizona points of the second half and the turnaround as a whole. He found a cutting Kevin Parrom, who started the second half in place of Brandon Ashley, for a layup. Johnson stole a ball and dunked it before his defense on the ensuing inbound pass caused another turnover. Then, he found Tarczewski for a layup and Arizona trailed 37-33 early in the second half.
The sophomore guard's layup with 13 minutes left gave Arizona a 45-44 lead, its first since the Wildcats had a 15-12 advantage. That score also broke Johnson's old career high.
The Wildcats needed two of its seniors to finish off the Golden Eagles. Tied at 51, Parrom hit a go-ahead three with 4:50 left in the game before Solomon Hill followed it up with his own shot from deep with two minutes to go before UA finished the game hitting the needed foul shots.
Parrom finished with 14 points and eight rebounds, as he and Hill (seven rebounds) had to make up for the ineffectiveness of Tarczewski, Ashley and Jerrett. Those three freshmen and sophomore Angelo Chol combined for only nine points and 12 rebounds in what was collectively their worst performance of the year.
Tarczewski grabbed seven of those rebounds, and out of the four big men was the only one who was even mildly useful against the small-ball Golden Eagles.
Still, Arizona had some positives. The team got to the foul stripe 28 times to Southern Miss' six attempts, though it only hit 19 of those free throws. The Wildcats held the Golden Eagles to 39.7 percent shooting -- though the opponent was without top scorer Dwayne Davis, who was sick.
More good news came in how Hill and Parrom performed. It could be concerning that they didn't attempt to take over the game, but against such a zone, that might have been forced anyway. Johnson held down the fort until it was time to take and hit big shots. Both Hill and Parrom did just that.
The other senior, Lyons, arguably played worse than backup point guard Jordin Mayes, who was his usual under-control self.
But the biggest problem for Arizona was giving up another example of how to take its young big men out of the game. To assume that teams with size will start playing smaller is too much of a leap. So too is it reckless to assume Arizona won't improve, but come tournament time, smaller mid-major teams could very well dust off the blueprint that Charleston Southern and now Southern Miss drew out.
If the Wildcats cruise to the NCAA tourney and face such a team in the second or third round, you never know if such an early-season game could come back to haunt the Wildcats.