Nothing the Arizona Wildcats have done this season has come easy, and when they struggle to shoot against a broken-down zone, games get plain hard to watch.
But Arizona (7-2) pulled out a 53-39 victory against the NAU Lumberjacks on Saturday as UA shot 42 percent to NAU's 37 percent in McKale Center. That's about par for the season, as the Wildcats sit at 204th in the nation in field goal percentage, hitting on just 42.5 percent from the field going into Saturday's game.
Solomon Hill led Arizona with 15 points, seven rebounds and three assists.
NAU used a slow-down motion offense to make the Wildcats work on defense for all 35 seconds of the clock.
The strategy worked in the first half, as Arizona led 25-19 at halftime. Again, a slow start put Arizona down 14-7 with nine minutes to play in the first half, but the Wildcats went on an 18-5 run going into the halftime break.
Less than three minutes into the second half, the Wildcats had scored 10 points and opened up a 14-point, 35-21 lead on the Lumberjacks thanks to two Kyle Fogg 3-point jumpers from the left sideline. Fogg finished with 11 points on the night.
The 3-point happy Wildcats took 26 attempts from beyond the arc, and that kept them off the foul stripe, where they only took 12 free throws. The execution was solid, but Arizona just couldn't make its open shots -- many of the 3-point misses could simply come down to Arizona being tired out from defending NAU for full shot clocks.
Here's a look at what made this game a grind-out win that could help Arizona down the road.
- Toward the end of the game, players from both teams were clearly beaten down, tired and grabbing at the bottom of their shorts. The Lumberjacks saw many of their points come as the shot-clock struck 0, and it was both tiring and demoralizing to Arizona, who had pressured NAU well beyond the 3-point line. Today was probably viewed by head coach Sean Miller as a great way to challenge his team's mental toughness in addition to it essentially becoming a conditioning session.
- Arizona executed well against NAU's zone and that resulted in a lot of a open 3s. Of course, making them would have been nice. The Wildcats poor shooting (35 percent from 3 on Saturday) is something to worry about as this team faces some tough opponents in the upcoming days. I cannot think of one player who has put together consistent shooting nights.
- Hill continued to shine for the Wildcats, and the difference from last year to this has been his obvious improvement in being aggressive. That was evident again on Saturday, where Hill crashed the offensive and defensive glass, scoring on the inside by sheer will rather than off one-on-one attacks. When he does go one-on-one, Hill's Plan A is passing to wide-open teammates.
- The point guard slot is a confusing one. While Jordin Mayes continues to start, he has been very quiet offensively. He played 16 minutes to Josiah Turner's 24 and went 0-for-4 from the field. He doesn't make mistakes, but Turner has been taking less risks and that, along with his flashy playmaking abilities, has separated him from Mayes. Turner scored five of the first seven Wildcat points on Saturday. Though he only finished with those five points, he added five boards, an assist and no turnovers.
- Kyryl Natyazhko didn't see playing time against NAU. Angelo Chol played 11 minutes at center and had two blocks.
My final thought: With the Wildcats struggling immensely in their shooting, I'd like to see a little more time go to Brendon Lavender. He played 14 minutes against NAU and it's clear Miller is trying to find him time in the lineup for the pure reason of Arizona lacking any shooting threats, but perhaps he needs more than that to get in a rhythm. He only shot 1-for-4 against the Lumberjacks, but hit one 3, was straight on with his misses, and dropped two dimes with zero turnovers.