Even without Brandon Ashley, the Arizona Wildcats are an elite defensive team.
People were forgetting that will keep them in any game.
So when the offense was clicking like it was in a 88-61 win against the Colorado Buffaloes on Saturday, the Wildcats found separation. The breathing room felt refreshing. Arizona held CU without a field goal in the first 10-plus minutes of the game to build a 22-5 lead, and though the Buffs eventually fought back, a second-half burst by the Wildcats did them in with a good chunk of time left on the game clock.
Arizona led by six at halftime but with a 51-41 lead and 13 minutes to play in the game, T.J. McConnell picked off two passes as his Wildcats went on a 13-2 run to build a 21 lead that only grew. After Colorado forward Xavier Johnson proclaimed the Buffaloes would pull off a 20-point blowout following the teams' last meeting, he fell victim to the Wildcats but also to himself.
In the second half after the Wildcats had run away with the game, Aaron Gordon took a pass on the left wing and didn't have a defender in front of him. But as he drove the lane, Johnson reached in instead of sliding over, and Gordon laid the ball into the hoop after drawing a foul.
That play symbolized the sub-par defensive performance the Buffs put on in Boulder, and in general, their defense only helped UA gain more confidence than their offense has had all year.
Nick Johnson found his stroke, scoring 20 points in all kinds of ways and adding six assists. Elliott Pitts hit two threes off the bench, and Kaleb Tarczewski got his fair share of touches in the post. Gordon scored a career-high 23 by knocking down two threes but also scoring on several rim-rattling dunks. It was that easy.
Rondae Hollis-Jefferson fought foul trouble -- Tarczewski, Gordon and Matt Korcheck did as well -- and even though Gabe York only scored four points, he led the Wildcats with 10 rebounds from his makeshift small forward position.
All six Wildcats who took a three made one -- Jacob Hazzard hit two threes late -- and Arizona went 8-for-17 from deep.
It helped that the Wildcats pushed the ball after their stops and hardly thought twice about attacking off the dribble, something that's plagued a stagnant offense in the last three weeks.
Perhaps the offense clicked to the tune of 60.3 percent shooting, 24 assists and just six turnovers because its engine was humming on the fuel that runs through T.J. McConnell's veins. Not only did the point guard's steals ignite the break, but his 10 assists played a big part in Tarczewski and Gordon combining to shoot 15-of-20 from the floor. Seven of McConnell's dimes went to Zeus or Gordon, and most of those were shots right at the rim.
But it was and always be about the Wildcats' defense.
Askia Booker couldn't shake McConnell, going 4-of-14 on his shooting, and Xavier Johnson followed up his chatter from a few weeks back with a 1-for-10 shooting night. Only center Josh Scott had any amount of individual success for Colorado, which shot 32.7 percent for the game. Scott scored 18, and 10 of those points came from the foul stripe.
Arizona has seemingly found itself, and with the confidence coming from sweeping the mountain schools, a trip most Pac-12 coaches call the toughest in the league, perhaps Sean Miller's crew doesn't see itself out of the national championship conversation just yet.