It quickly became one of those games where no statistic could be the cause for a win or loss. There wasn't a blame to place other than one team making a play or getting a break at the right time.
Arizona made the big plays, turned them into a big run and dropped No. 6 Duke 72-66 Friday to win the NIT Season Tip-Off in Madison Square Garden. To do it, Sean Miller's team needed to play its usual inside-out defense while manufacturing a few stops into a second-half run to gain separation.
A matchup hyped as Aaron Gordon against Duke super freshman Jabari Parker wasn't fair to begin with. Parker, a frequent 20-point scorer, was the best player on his team. Gordon, as good as he is, is a piece to a more complex puzzle for the Wildcats.
And in the end, it was Brandon Ashley making a case as Arizona's most improved player from last year to this. He fouled out but when he did had already outplayed Parker, scoring 13 points on 6-of-8 shooting but frustrating Parker into going 7-for-21 on the night and 0-for-4 from deep. While Parker finished with 19 points, his inefficiency mirrored Duke's as a whole.
The Blue Devils, who came into the game as the seventh-best team in field goal percentage by hitting 53.7 percent, finished shooting 42.4 percent from the field.
While Arizona has previously hung its hat on two-point defense, it was the three-point defense against Duke that made the difference. Duke hit just 4-of-16 three-pointers. It's not that Arizona's gameplan changed but that the Blue Devils' three-point shooting earned enough respect to pull the defense out and open up driving lanes -- and that didn't mean UA didn't alter shots in the paint.
Nick Johnson scored 15 points, and dished out three assists to go with two steals and two blocks, the final one coming on an emphatic smash into the Madison Square Garden seats in the final seconds and with the game already in hand. The message said a bit about the leader who, along with Gordon, patiently waited for a perfect moment to make his mark on the game.
With Arizona leading 49-48, Ashley picked up a fourth foul with eight minutes left in the game after matching Parker blow for blow. The Wildcats rallied with their starting power forward on the pine. Out of a timeout, Kaleb Tarczewski, who had 10 points and nine rebounds, got open for a dunk on a set play and soon after, Gordon scored on his first aggressive move of the night, an And 1 drive. Johnson hit a transition three to give UA a 57-48 lead.
Duke responded by making a three and switching to a zone defense. Arizona thusly responded by running a backdoor lob to Gordon.
The two players that had seemingly gone too quiet all night long became the heroes as the game grew old. Gordon altered a dunk attempted by Parker and Johnson blocked a shot at his chest, leading to an open dunk by Rondae Hollis-Jefferson that gave Arizona a 10-point lead with four minutes to play.
Two days after the Wildcats failed to record an assist in the first half, they finished with 18 on Friday.
The interior passing was especially impressive between Gordon, Ashley, Tarczewski and Hollis-Jefferson. Gordon ended the night with 10 points, seven rebounds, two blocks and four assists. McConnell led the team with eight dimes on the night, and quietly, Hollis-Jefferson put on a stellar effort off the bench, scoring seven points to go with six boards, two steals and two assists.
Johnson, Tarczewski and Gordon earned two fouls apiece in the first half, forcing Miller to play McConnell, Gabe York, Jordin Mayes, Hollis-Jefferson and Ashley in a smallball lineup. Arizona survived and thensome.
The length of the Arizona frontcourt initially bothered Parker, and his only success came when he bullied the Wildcats in the paint or slipped open off the ball to get a shot from ball movement. Blue Devils teammate Rodney Hood added 21 points, and guard Quinn Cook scored 13, most of which came early as UA struggled with its perimeter defense.
The most impressive part? The Wildcats turned away a No. 6 team with arguably the best player in the country, and they did so by turning a switch in the second half.
All along, it was the defense that kept it a back-and-forth game as the offense found itself.
It came down to winning with a play here and another there. Johnson, Gordon and the Wildcats made them when it mattered. And the Wildcats legitimized their potential as a Final Four-caliber team.