Arizona led by 20, behind excellent defense and an offense focused on finding their way to the hoop, ending up with a bucket or a shot at two free throws. A&M was listless, committing errors both forced and unforced.
Then, the universe shifted.
For over four minutes, the Wildcats did literally nothing right and everything was coming up A&M as the large lead was suddenly cut to just two.
Lucky for Arizona, the Aggies simply ran out of time after that 18-0 run. A run that was mercifully put to rest with two Rawle Alkins free throws to ice the game and give Arizona a 67-63 win.
So what worked for 35 minutes? What nearly gave it away in the last five? What’s next for these Wildcats? Here’s three things we learned from the scare in Houston:
SMART & UGLY
Coming into the game against the Aggies, I was concerned about the fact that A&M doesn’t seem to give up many free throws, loves to give up threes, and has big interior defenders.
At this point, if there is a blueprint to beat Arizona, those are three great ways to start. The Wildcats love forcing their way to the charity stripe, in fact they depend on it. Their shooting is wildly inconsistent outside of Lauri Markkanen. And most of their scoring, outside of free throws, come around the rim.
But Arizona forced the issue and they attacked A&M at the basket all day long. Sure, they also took 15 three pointers, only making three (all makes came from Markkanen), but they missed some good looks. For the most part, this team was committed to attacking, especially in the early going as a hungry Dusan Ristic was fed 14 of the first 24 points Arizona scored. He finished with 18, leading the team.
I was curious to see if Arizona would divert from the gameplan they’ve been, more often than not, forced to use. But they certainly did not and showed that they’re more than capable of winning ugly against good competition.
IF YOU TURN THE BALL OVER, YOU’RE GONNA HAVE A BAD TIME
Arizona won the turnover battle, 14-9. That’s pretty good. However, when you analyze when those turnovers came about, you more or less see the story of the game.
A&M turned the ball over six times in the first half. They then proceeded to turn the ball over eight times in the first nine minutes of the second half.
EIGHT turnovers in NINE minutes. This is when the Wildcats lead ballooned to 22.
Kadeem Allen had a rough game offensively, he didn’t make a shot, finishing with two points on 0-6 shooting from the field. But he controlled the game defensively, with non-stop activity at the defensive end. He finished with five steals and the team finished with ten.
On the other side, nine turnovers isn’t too shabby for a Wildcats team that has really struggled in that department since losing Parker Jackson-Cartwright. But when you dig deep, you see why what was once a blowout win suddenly turned into a meltdown.
Arizona had just five turnovers in the first 37 minutes of the game, which is excellent. Couple that with their 14 assists and you have their collective best effort in the passing and ball handling department.
But, then, guys got tired and careless and after four turnovers in the final three minutes, they nearly gave the game away.
The defensive intensity was great for 35 minutes and so was the ball handling. But fatigue can be a real issue when you’ve got a rotation of seven guys. Three of those seven being guards that all played at least 36 minutes. That leads us to our third item...
CHRISTMAS BREAK IS COMING AT THE PERFECT TIME
The Wildcats have one more non-conference game, against New Mexico, on Tuesday night at McKale Center.
I’m not suggesting the Wildcats should look past New Mexico at all. This is arguably going to be the Lobos’ biggest game of the season. They’ll be ready. But in their two true road games this season, New Mexico has lost to New Mexico State and Illinois State. So, at the very least, Arizona should be favored by a wide margin.
The Wildcats need to get through Tuesday night. Because waiting for them on the other side is a much needed ten day break before conference play begins.
Yesterday was the first time that the Wildcats looked worn out. Allen, Alkins, Markkanen and Kobi Simmons are all averaging over 30 minutes a game. Since losing PJC, the three guards are all averaging nearly 35.
Arizona almost blew out a good opponent using physical offense and busy defense.
Then, they almost blew the game entirely.
With tired legs seemingly beginning to set in, a break could be exactly what these seven guys, and this program as a whole, really need.