Sean Miller has been clear that the Arizona Wildcats’ defense is a work in progress, and Wednesday they finally faced an opponent that was able to exploit it.
In their first major test of the season, the second-ranked Wildcats fell 90-84 to the unranked North Carolina State Wolfpack in the Bahamas for their first loss of the 2017-18 campaign.
The heavily-favored Wildcats (3-1) trailed nearly the entire game as they were unable to string together enough stops to overcome a sluggish start.
"We had plenty of offense but our defense was really, really bad,” Miller said after the game, via Bruce Pascoe of the Arizona Daily Star. “Until we get that corrected, we’re going to win a few and lose a few. You can’t win on a neutral court allowing them 90 points and to be as efficient as they were."
Familiar problems arose for Arizona: it couldn’t stop dribble penetration, looked lost defending pick-and-rolls, and offered little resistance at the rim.
Fueled by 20-point games from Braxton Beverly and Allerik Freeman, NC State shot 49 percent from the field and 28-35 from the free throw line.
NC State (5-0) entered shooting 26 percent from 3 this season, but connected on 8-20 (40 percent) against Arizona, most of which were wide open looks.
NC State led by as many as nine in the first half thanks to its hot shooting, but Arizona managed to tie the game heading into the locker room. Arizona twice took the lead in the second half, but the Wolfpack answered each time.
Allonzo Trier hit back-to-back layups to put Arizona up 73-71 with 5:43 left, but NC State rattled of a 14-3 run to take an 86-76 lead with 1:48 left, its largest lead of the game.
Arizona only had eight turnovers against an NC State defense that led the nation in turnover percentage, but had difficulty hitting anything outside the paint
The Wildcats shot 47 percent from the field, but 2-17 from 3 and 24-35 (69 percent) from the charity stripe.
Miller swapped Emmanuel Akot for Dylan Smith in the starting lineup and the results didn’t follow as planned.
NC State hit three early 3s to take a 15-6 lead with 13:44 left in the first half, then back-to-back 3s by Torin Dorn put NC State up 35-28 with 3:57 left.
However, behind a late surge from Trier and Dusan Ristic, Arizona would end the half on a 12-5 run to knot the game at 40 despite trailing for nearly the entire period.
Trier had as many points as turnovers (3) in the period, but finished strong with 27 points on 9-19 shooting. Bahamian native Deandre Ayton recorded his fourth double-double in as many games with 27 points (7-12 FG) and 14 rebounds, but shot 1-4 from 3.
Ristic and Parker Jackson-Cartwright each finished with 11 points. Jackson-Cartwright had a team-high five assists. Ristic had six rebounds.
Arizona got very little production outside of those four, as NC State had a staggering 39-6 edge in bench points.
Smith scored the game’s first basket, but went scoreless the rest of the game. Keanu Pinder had two dunks, including one that put Arizona up 75-73 with 5:08 left, and Ira Lee added a layup, but that was all UA would get.
Freshmen Brandon Randolph, Emmanuel Akot, and Alex Barcello went scoreless. Akot only played four minutes. Barcello and Randolph played 21 and 13, respectively.
The trio went a combined 0-6 from the field and didn’t make much of impact elsewhere.
Ayton, with hundreds of friends and family members in attendance, did most of the heavy lifting in the first half, tallying 16 points and seven rebounds.
Trier had a nightmarish start, and didn’t score until there were 56 seconds left in the first half when he weaved his way through traffic for a layup.
He got going in the second half, but Arizona’s defense never did. The Wolfpack shot 52 percent from the field in the final 20 minutes, handing the Wildcats their first loss.
NC State’s 90 points were the most Arizona has allowed in regulation since it lost 90-76 to Cal back in February 2010.
Arizona was able to simply outscore its opponents in its first three games, but that formula proved ineffective Wednesday when it faced a higher-caliber team as Miller warned it would.
The Wildcats will look to bounce back Thursday at 7:30 p.m. MST when they will face the loser of the SMU-Northern Iowa game in the loser’s bracket of Battle 4 Atlantis.
Follow Ryan Kelapire on Twitter at @RKelapire