PHOENIX — On March 17, 2007, a staple of Sean Miller’s coaching philosophy was born.
His eighth-seeded Xavier team held a three-point lead over No. 1 seed Ohio State with nine seconds left in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
The Buckeyes had the ball with a chance to tie, and Miller opted not to foul.
The rest is history.
Ron Lewis sank a 30-footer at the buzzer to force overtime, and the Buckeyes would go on to eliminate Miller’s Musketeers.
“I could have called a timeout but I didn’t,” Miller remembered. “Since then, we always elect to foul. I like to knock on wood when I say it, but it’s been good to us and obviously that’s how we play it down the stretch.”
Having learned from the mistake he made a decade ago, Miller instructed his team to foul when up three with five seconds left.
They did, but not at the right time.
Deandre Ayton fouled A&M point guard Duane Wilson with two seconds left as he started his shooting motion behind the 3-point line.
Wilson, a 94.7 percent shooter, was awarded three free throws, but he missed the first and the Wildcats wound up escaping with a 67-64 win.
“It’s always great to go through these situations at the end of the game. We were going to foul on purpose but when you do that you have to do it right at the halfcourt line,” Miller said. “We had a younger group in, we didn’t communicate, Parker (Jackson-Cartwright) got back screened and we ended up fouling a 3-point shooter which you never want to do.
“That’s a lesson learned and I’m glad we could learn it with a win.”
Other notes from UA’s 67-64 win over Texas A&M
Allonzo Trier had just seven points on 2-7 shooting Tuesday and Deandre Ayton was limited to 13 points and 10 rebounds on 4-9 shooting, but Arizona managed to survive against a top-10 team because of players like Dylan Smith, Brandon Randolph and Dusan Ristic.
“Guys stepped up,” Ayton said.
While Trier was scoreless in the first half, Smith had 11 first-half points and finished with 13 on 4-5 shooting while also making a few nice defensive plays.
Randolph also had 13 points and sank several clutch free throws down the stretch. And as Texas A&M’s massive frontcourt keyed in on slowing down Ayton, Ristic had 13 points on 5-7 shooting.
Parker Jackson-Cartwright and Alex Barcello were just 2-8 from 3, but both makes were big shots.
Jackson-Cartwright’s 3 put Arizona up 61-58 with 1:48 left, and Barcello’s 3 tied the game at 20 midway through the first half.
“Allonzo let the game come to him. It wasn’t his night and that’s the other thing about tonight. He was 2-7 from the floor, 1-6 from 3, and we were still able to win which was great,” Miller said. “On different nights over the long course of the season, it’s not always going to be Deandre with 25, Allonzo at 24. Balance is going to seep in.”
For Barcello, it was his first made 3 away from McKale this season. The freshman is 1-13 from behind the arc in other venues.
“The more he plays, the more confident he’ll get,” Miller said. “Watching him everyday in practice, he’s one of our team’s best shooters. He’s one of our team’s hardest workers. We believe in him, we trust him. He’s a team guy all the way and we’re thrilled to have him on our team.”
Miller thought Jackson-Cartwright’s shot was the most important one of the game.
"He delivered. That’s experience,” Miller said. “Not letting five or six misses get in the way of a good shot. He took it with confidence and he made it.”
“One of his gifts...is he does not turn the ball over”
Ayton only took nine shots, but had three assists and continues to show his willingness — and effectiveness — as a passer. The players around him are benefitting.
“There’s a lot of things within the game that the other team has to do to take him away,” Miller said. “He may have gotten nine shots, but you have to realize that they’re working the entire possession to prevent him from getting the ball. And when he gets it, they’re crowding him and it opens things up.”
Arizona only had 11 turnovers on the night — and just three in the second half — which Miller thought was the biggest reason Arizona won.
Ayton had just two in 35 minutes.
“One of his gifts and I’ve talked to our team a lot about this, is he does not turn the ball over,” Miller said. “It’s not as if it’s easy. A lot of times very talented big guys early they’re high turnover players. He’s not and some of his passes really lead to great shots for guys like Dylan. That’s part of the storyline tonight. He might not have had as big of night … but what he took on, the challenge when he got the ball, and really Dusan as well.”
Arizona shot 20-24 from the free throw line while Texas A&M was just 7-10 — another reason Arizona won.
“You usually don’t talk about free throws when you lose, but if you go back to the Bahamas and look back at our free throw shooting, two of the three games we could have won if we would have shot better from the line,” Miller said. “These guys will tell you that’s one of our team’s strengths.”
Miller said Arizona turned in its best defensive effort of the season Tuesday. The Aggies entered with a top-20 offense, but averaged less than one point per possession, shooting 46 percent from the field and 36 percent from 3.
Some problems certainly arose — Arizona gave up easy scores on inbounds passes and surrendered 40 points in the paint — but the Wildcats looked far sharper on defense than they did last week when Miller was highly critical of his team’s defensive effort, calling it “terrible” and his team “lifeless.”
He clarified what he meant by that after the win over Texas A&M.
“I’m not necessarily accusing Deandre Ayton of not trying hard or saying Dylan Smith doesn’t care. Sometimes guys have to learn how hard you have to play,” he said.
“When you’re in the Bahamas and you’re playing three games in three nights, it’s not easy. If you’re new to this — and even if you’re really talented — it takes a little bit of time to figure out what coach really means. I think the last two games, these guys have a much better understanding of what it takes to win, what it takes to win on the road against a good team. Our effort is good. Our practices have been good. These guys’ attitudes are great and the fact that we were able to come here and win tonight is a big shot.”
Texas A&M entered as one of the top rebounding teams in the country, but it only won the rebounding margin 30-29.
Arizona tied UNLV, another top rebounding team, in that category Saturday in its overtime win vs. the Runnin’ Rebels in Las Vegas.
“You look at the frontlines of UNLV and Texas A&M, they’re as good as it gets in college basketball at getting second shots,” Miller said. “Our guys did a good job.”
It was mostly a team effort Tuesday. Ayton held down the paint with 10 rebounds, but no other Wildcat tracked down more than three boards.
Texas A&M big man Robert Williams, one of the top rebounders in the country, was limited to seven in 30 minutes.
7-footer Tyler Davis, who scored 21 points, tallied just two.
Arizona fans made up about 70 percent of the folks in attendance at Talking Stick Resort Arena, but it may have been closer to 90 percent if you count another contingent of fans — the GCU faithful.
Lopes fans, some of the best in college basketball, were supporting Arizona, distracting Texas A&M free throw shooters in the second half and then they gave high fives to the Wildcats as they walked back to the locker room after escaping with a win.
“I learned a lot about GCU when we played them last year. We have a lot of respect for them,” Miller said. “They’re the only group of people in my nine years at Arizona that I’ve ever heard at McKale. … They love college basketball and it’s great for our state.”
Arizona outscored Texas A&M 38-33 in the second half when the Aggies were trying to score at the basket closest to GCU’s student section.
That might not be a coincidence.
“We appreciate the GCU fans that helped the Arizona fans help us get this win tonight!” tweeted UA forward Keanu Pinder. “Respect.”
GCU lost to St John’s 68-60 in the second game of the doubleheader.
Former Wildcat Justin Simon had a career-high 17 points and 11 rebounds, the fourth double-double of his career.
Red Storm head coach Chris Mullin had high praise for the redshirt sophomore, calling him “versatile,” a “really gifted athlete”, and “really good in the open floor.”
“Justin’s got a great personality,” Mullin said. “He’s just a really good guy. Easy going. He’s playing good basketball for us.”
Simon is having a solid year at St John’s, rating as one of the top defenders in the country.
Mullin said Simon’s redshirt year was “tremendous” for him.
Arizona returns to action Saturday when it hosts Alabama (6-2), arguably the best team the Wildcats will face in McKale Center all season.
Miller is curious to see how the Wildcats respond after two big wins.
“Our schedule is the real thing,” Miller said. “We play Alabama on Saturday and now we have to be able to handle these two wins, these guys have a big week academically and we have really what I’d call our first really big game at home where a lot of people are going to care nationally. We have to be ready for that.”
Will Rawle Alkins be back? The sophomore (foot) was cleared for full contact recently and has returned to practice, but Miller couldn’t answer that question.
“I don’t know. I can’t really comment on that,” he said. “We’ll figure that out as we go. He’s certainly progressing. I think today is the 10th week for him. So his rehab is going well, he’s focusing on school, he’s able to practice for the first time, so we kinda take it day-by-day moving forward.”
Follow Ryan Kelapire on Twitter at @RKelapire