On Dec. 2, one can argue that the Arizona Wildcats found themselves in a must-win situation. That’s far earlier than years past and a sign of the times with this Wildcat squad.
Must-win sounds a little more dire than it really was but fact of the matter is a fourth loss this early in the season, all away from McKale Center, all against the four most serious competitors Arizona has squared off against to this point, would be a terrible sign for a program that had national championship aspirations.
But Arizona passed the test, beating the UNLV Rebels by a score of 91-88 in overtime. It was far from easy and not everything went well. Here’s three up and three down from Arizona’s nail-biting win in Vegas.
Up until Saturday, Trier had been a different player in McKale Center. When the Wildcats have played at home, Trier has been an efficiency machine and poured in buckets from all over the floor. Plus, he has a steal in every game played at home and shows a certain amount of comfort.
In the Bahamas, the vacation that needs to be forgotten, Trier was a hot mess on both sides of the ball. So with this being a road game, there had to be questions about whether Trier would be able to keep his composure, especially in a close game.
There were a few not-so-great moments but overall, Trier really came up big in the clutch for the Wildcats on Saturday night. Eight of Trier’s team-high 29 points were scored in the overtime frame including free throws to seal the game.
While Deandre Ayton, who had another otherworldly game, may be Arizona’s best player, Trier is the most important. It was huge to see him take over in OT and make absolutely sure that Arizona got the win. That’s the type of response that can take this team to another level.
Over the course of his Arizona career, PJC’s finest moments have come at home. True road games haven’t exactly treated the Wildcats point guard nearly as well. In 51 career games at McKale, Jackson-Cartwright has 46 turnovers. In 27 career road games as a Wildcat, he’s got 47. Frankly, PJC hasn’t always been reliable in road situations.
But on Saturday night, in his first true road game as a senior, Jackson-Cartwright looked comfortable and made the right play often. He finished with only three assists and he did have two turnovers but played smart, composed basketball and helped the Wildcats climb out of a deficit to stay in the game with 12 points on 5-10 shooting.
For those that watched Arizona’s forgetful meeting with Purdue a little over a week ago, it was easy to see that most of the team threw in the towel at a certain point. Purdue jumped all over the Wildcats and when Arizona couldn’t find a response, they were just dead in the water.
So it’s natural to have watched the beginning of Saturday’s game with UNLV and wonder if Arizona had it in them to pull themselves out of a hole.
UNLV got out to an early lead and kept it well into the second half, at one point leading by 13. But we saw something in the Wildcats on Saturday night that we didn’t see in their games a week ago — fight.
Arizona clawed back and refused to go down to the Rebels who had a packed Thomas & Mack Center behind them.
After being the most disappointing team in the country through a couple weeks of action and being down double-digits in a venue the program has never had much luck in, if Arizona had rolled over and lost, it would be tough to come back from that. But the Wildcats fought back until the buzzer sounded and they walked out with a win. That could be a huge morale boost moving forward.
There were hopes that Akot would be quite possibly the third-best player on this team. He’s had a fair amount of hype surrounding him and has shown flashes of athletic brilliance.
Unfortunately though, it would seem that Akot has fallen out of favor with Sean Miller in regards to being a real part of Arizona’s rotation.
Akot played just two minutes on Saturday night. This is coming after a game where Akot played just five minutes against Long Beach State. He’s dealing with knee tendinitis issues which is what led to the short amount of time on the floor against Long Beach State. But in a game like this against UNLV, Arizona needed all hands on deck and Akot was not called on to help out.
Miller said just a couple days ago that while Akot is in fact dealing with knee issues, he’s “not a defensive stopper right now.” It’s still early and he’s got plenty of time to work himself back into the rotation. But if Arizona keeps getting tough wins without Akot on the floor, he may not have the opportunity.
Arizona grinded out a tough win but they nearly gave it away a few separate times. There were three occasions where Arizona put themselves in a situation where they had to rush a shot in the waning seconds of a possession. It wasn’t due to UNLV’s stifling defense. Truthfully, the Rebels defense fell apart in the second half and didn’t do a whole lot in overtime.
It was simply because the ball would stick and whoever had the ball would wait until the final seconds of the shot clock to make a move.
There was no more important time than late in the overtime when Allonzo Trier drove to the basket in a last-ditch effort to score with two seconds remaining on the shot clock. This came after 28 seconds of the whole unit basically just standing around. Trier’s shot was rejected out of bounds and Arizona was able to run a nice out of bounds play to get Ayton the ball under the basket.
While things worked out there, in those big moments, the ball and the offense can’t get stuck in the mud like that. It will be interesting to watch these possessions in future Arizona games that go down to the wire like Saturday.
Defending opposing bigs
UNLV’s pair of big men absolutely ate Arizona up on Saturday night.
Brandon McCoy went for 33 points and 10 rebounds on 13-of-17 from the field. Shakur Juiston chipped in 21 points on 10-of-14 shooting, nine rebounds and he swatted four shots.
Arizona won the game so a fair question is: Why does this matter? The opposing team’s dynamic duo combined for 54 and 19 and they couldn’t get the job done.
Well, this matters because awaiting the Wildcats will now be the undefeated Texas A&M Aggies. A team that has won all of their games by double-digits and a team that sports one of the most fearsome frontcourts in the country. If Arizona wants to beat A&M on Tuesday night in Phoenix, they have got to do a better job of defending the interior. If they don’t, get used to hearing the names D.J. Hogg, Tyler Davis and Robert Williams. They could all be in for big nights against the Wildcats.