The Arizona Wildcats needed one last quality win before conference play starts in two weeks.
They got it in Houston, barely.
Arizona played a “neutral site” game against the Texas A&M Aggies (been told there were more Wildcat fans there for what it’s worth) and came away with a 67-63 victory to improve to 10-2 on the season with just one non-conference contest remaining.
The Aggies started to struggle in the final five minutes of the first half. They didn’t make a field goal in that time frame, and Arizona was able to head to the locker room on a 9-0 run, leading 41-28 after a Lauri Markkanen three.
Both teams were unable to make shots early in the second half, so that late first half run by Arizona became even more critical. Arizona was able to maintain a comfortable lead up until the last five minutes of the second half.
Then everything fell apart.
After trailing by as much as 22 with 10:14 left, the Aggies closed the game on an 18-2 run, led by A&M big man Tyler Davis. He finished with a game-high 23 points, making six of his nine shots in the second half.
The Aggies had the Arizona lead down to two in the closing seconds, but after a couple of Rawle Alkins free throws, they were unable to dig themselves completely out of the enormous hole they were in early in the half. Arizona did not make a field goal in the final 8:11 of the game.
Here are some of the main takeaways from this particular game:
Bigs scoring early
Dusan Ristic and Markkanen combined for the team’s first 13 points, and 15 of the first 20. At half, they were the only two players that were in double-figures.
Time and time again, Sean Miller’s strategy has been to get Dusan the ball early. This time, it paid off for the entire first half instead of just the first five or so minutes. In a game where Arizona didn’t have a clear size advantage, it was highly encouraging to see Ristic succeed on the offensive end, and not be totally outmatched on the defensive end.
On Markkanen’s end, the Finnish frosh certainly rebounded well after having his two worst performances of his career over the last week. His three-point shot was on the money throughout the morning (3-5), and he was able to make his presence felt down low rebounding the ball (4 defensive, 3 offensive).
Season of Charity
Unlike some recent years, this is clearly an elite free throw shooting team. The Wildcats went 20-of-24 from the stripe on Saturday, or 83.3%. And it was at the stripe in the closing seconds that Arizona was able to ice away the late rally by A&M.
As long as the Cats are getting to the stripe, things will be okay. But only five free throw attempts over the final 15 minutes of the game is one major reason why this one ended up so much closer than it appeared that it would.
Lone Star Steals
Texas A&M appeared to be trying to obtain some sort of turnover record in this one. While this has been an issue for Arizona since Parker Jackson-Cartwright was injured, it certainly wasn’t the Wildcats’ problem in this one.
Arizona had just nine turnovers (four of those came in the final four minutes), while A&M had 14 (none in the final 11 minutes). By himself, Kadeem Allen had five steals, and at least twice as many deflections on passes.
Seven Is Not Heaven
There were a few reasons why Arizona gave up the lead the way it did. But the biggest reason is that there are only seven scholarship players, and they were obviously playing on fatigued legs in the closing minutes of this game.
The announcers made it a point that the team didn’t even get to Houston until late Friday night, practicing in Tucson on Friday rather than in Houston (there was a Rockets home game Friday night too). After playing a game that ended at 11 PM on Wednesday, and with some players finishing out finals, it’s not entirely surprising that the end of this game did not go well.
Arizona still won, which shouldn’t be overlooked, but this team can not get through tough opponents with this current roster. It would help if all seven players were playing well, but Chance Comanche isn’t doing anything right, and only played 12 minutes in this game. Keanu Pinder picked up 15 minutes of action, while four players were forced to play 36+ minutes.
Right now: This. Is. Arizona.