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Arizona basketball: WSU center Conor Clifford takes advantage of Wildcats’ flaw

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Another back to the basket guy getting the job done against the Cats

NCAA Basketball: Washington State at Arizona Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

When the Washington State Cougars are next up on your schedule, the main focus is on Josh Hawkinson.

Coming into Thursday’s game against the Arizona Wildcats, Hawkinson was averaging 15.6 points and 10.3 rebounds per game, putting him on pace to average a double-double for the second consecutive year.

But Arizona was able to hold the senior forward to just nine points and five rebounds.

“We did a good job on Josh overall,” Arizona head coach Sean Miller said after the game. “Some of that’s skewed because his partner there, Conor Clifford, went to work.”

Clifford, a redshirt senior from Huntington Beach, CA, had a game-high 19 points while also finishing tied for the team lead in rebounds with five.

“He had eight two-point field goals against our defense,” Miller continued about Clifford. “It’s something that we have to work on.”

“Tonight we went up against that back to the basket big guy, and we didn’t handle it as well as we needed to, so that’s a challenge for us to fix.”

Arizona’s weakness in this area allowed Clifford to score the second-most points he’s had in a game this year.

“His best game before this was against Creighton where I think he had 29,” WSU head coach Ernie Kent said of his center’s performance against Arizona. “I’m just so proud of him because he’s not the most mobile guy, he doesn’t jump very high, but he has great hands, and he’s just a load down there. He’s very, very smart, and he knows how to score.”

“For him to take the fight to two seven-footers at once and be able to pass out of double teams and go score like that, I didn’t think they had any answers for him,” Kent continued. “That’s why they tried to double-team him. He played terrific. He just ran out of gas.”

“I missed some shots that I should’ve made,” Clifford said of his night in Tucson. “(Dusan Ristic) battled me well and pushed me out of the block, which made things difficult, but I thought I did alright.”

Ristic’s offensive prowess may have helped lead to Clifford getting gassed at the end of the game because of how much more you have to do defensively than against most opponents.

“He has that mid-range jumper so I can’t just sleep and help on (Lauri) Markkanen, and so he’s keeping me active all the time,” explained Clifford. “(Ristic)’s ducking me all the time, and if I lose him for one second, he’s ducking and keeping me honest. He can score both hands, so yeah, I’d have to say he’s one of the better big men that I’ve played against.”

Certainly if Arizona runs into an athletic big man who can control the post on the offensive end, they’re going to have problems. We’ve seen it this year against Gonzaga with Przemek Karnowski, and a couple of other isolated incidents as well. Like Miller said, that’s one of the things that will need to get fixed if this team can be complete enough to make a deep run in March no matter who they’re facing.