Arizona never broke completely free. Instead, the Wildcats wrenched their way, inch by inch, away from Kansas State to advance to the finals of the Maui Invitational with a 72-68 victory.
For a team that played impressive enough defense against a team that was just outside the top-25 to start the season, it was promising and disappointing at the same time. Arizona's offense looked ineffective, but in actuality it was quite efficient, hitting 53 percent of its shots.
It didn't mean coach Sean Miller's team would ever dominate the scoreboard.
Arizona's strongest of defensive possessions rarely translated to transition buckets, and considering the lack of shooting in the core group of players -- a problem that goes back to last season -- that meant it was a low-scoring outing. It was also a low-possession outing. Yet, with all its eggs in the defensive basket, Arizona held on in the final two minutes despite holding only a two-point lead.
Kaleb Tarczewski scored 18 points to tie a career high, and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson led the Wildcats with eight boards and in the final minutes locked down Marcus Foster. It was Foster who torched Arizona for 23 points but until the last two minutes had an easy time against everyone but Hollis-Jefferson (save for a made three-point shot in transition, he couldn't get loose).
Kansas State shot a decent-enough 46 percent, but the style went in favor of the defensive-minded Arizona team.
Getting over another slow start: Arizona trailed 17-10 eight minutes into the game before the defense finally got the game slowed down. KSU wouldn't hit a field goal for nearly 10 minutes but free throws kept them in reach of UA. Miller's team scored 12 points in the final five minutes and got a good chunk of those points with Parker Jackson-Cartright running the show for T.J. McConnell, a promising development.
A perspective on the ugly offense: Indeed, the Arizona Wildcats turned the ball over seven times in the first half. They missed 4-of-5 threes and went 6-for-11 at the foul stripe. Still, when Arizona got shots up, it wasn't all that bad. Arizona shot 46 percent in the first 20 minutes, and maybe it looked so pitiful because of all the missed jumpers and ugly plays at the end of shot clocks. At this point, Miller's team doesn't have the players who will be able to get their shots off when the clock is winding down. McConnell, Johnson, Hollis-Jefferson, among others, will have to emerge as capable players of doing just that.
When the offense opens up: Separation occurred midway through the second half. Coincidentally or not, the Wildcats began to pull away from their kin when McConnell took and made his first three-point basket. York followed it up with his own three then hit a long two a minute later to make it 54-47, Arizona. York had 15 points in 25 minutes and was a rare perimeter threat for Miller's club.
Who had a bad game?: Brandon Ashley struggled, turning the ball over six of Arizona's 12 times. He had 10 points and five rebounds, but often was forcing things on the offensive side of the ball.