From the onset, the Arizona Wildcats knew what they wanted when they headed to Las Vegas for the Pac-12 Tournament.
To win the whole thing, of course, but preferably to beat Oregon — the team that embarrassed them in Eugene — while doing so.
They got their wish as the Wildcats beat the Ducks 83-80 on Saturday night, earning the Pac-12 Tournament Championship.
And here’s what we learned about Arizona from the game:
Arizona really can beat anybody and is peaking at the right time
Heading into the Pac-12 Tournament, the Wildcats only had one win against top-25 teams and two wins against top-50 teams.
As such, there were legitimate questions as to whether or not they could consistently beat the best teams in college basketball because, aside from their win over UCLA at Pauley Pavilion, they hadn’t shown the ability to.
The Wildcats lost to both Butler and Gonzaga on neutral sites, lost to Oregon by 27 in Eugene, and then fell to UCLA at home on senior day.
Arizona’s win at UCLA looked like an anomaly more than anything.
But that assertion can be swept to the side now after Arizona beat UCLA and Oregon in consecutive days.
“I think that says that we’re probably playing our best basketball of the season right now, which is a great thing because right now is the most important part of the season,” Arizona center Dusan Ristic said. “Hopefully we can still improve. We have the most important tournament next week … and we have three days to get ready for that and I think our team game, the way we’re playing right now, is probably the best of the season and the best is yet to come.”
Maybe the UCLA loss was a good thing?
Losing is never fun, but UA’s loss to UCLA may have been exactly what Arizona needed before the postseason began.
“A loss always helps us,” Parker Jackson-Cartwright said after Arizona beat Oregon. “And in an ironic way, I’m glad we got some of those losses out of the way because it taught us a lot. It taught us how to persevere and get through tough times. And I think losing to UCLA helped us win a game like this.”
Jackson-Cartwright said he thinks Arizona turned a corner after its loss to UCLA. But what exactly led to the change?
“I think the sense of urgency that coach preaches and we have to be at our best,” Jackson-Cartwright said. “We can’t take any team, any opponent for granted. We have to play hard each day, especially in March. It’s elimination basketball and anyone’s capable of winning a game. With that being said, we’ve had that sense of urgency every game and we play with a toughness that I think we didn’t have earlier in the year that we’ve all of a sudden gained. I think we’re moving in the right direction.
“Great teams get better as the season goes on.”
Jackson-Cartwright continues to turn corners himself
Allonzo Trier and Lauri Markkanen drew most of the attention this weekend for their performances in the Pac-12 Tournament, and understandably so since both averaged 20 points or more during the weekend, but Parker Jackson-Cartwright was an unsung hero.
In the three Pac-12 Tournament games, Jackson-Cartwright had 12 assists to three turnovers and continued his hot shooting, making 4 of his 7 3-point attempts.
The junior has made 22 of his last 33 3-pointers, raising his season percentage to 43 percent.
Sean Miller lauded Jackson-Cartwright’s defense, too.
“They're not going after him anymore,” Miller said. “He's answered that bell. He's really a good player for us. He's playing at the top of his game, and these guys will tell you when he's in the game, he sparks our transition. He's one of our team's best defenders. He finished fifth in the Pac-12 in three-point percentage, and he made ... two 3s tonight.”
The 5-foot-10 guard also made what Miller might consider to be the play of the game.
With Oregon only down by two with under a minute left, Jackson-Cartwright soared for a key defensive rebound and then dumped the ball to Trier who would make two free throws to ice the game.
“It's one of my favorite plays I think I've ever seen. He jumped like 12 feet,” Miller said. “I can't wait to see it.
“But just those are the things that he's now doing that maybe early in his career he didn't do as much. His growth and development has been a real source of pride and I think something that's helped us finish very strong to this point.”
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