A fast start, a complete meltdown, a strong comeback and a shot bouncing off the backboard at the buzzer.
All of these things combined to send the Arizona Wildcats (16-4, 6-1) to a 73-71 win over the Stanford Cardinal (11-9, 5-2) on Saturday afternoon.
With the win, Arizona takes sole possession of the top spot in the Pac-12.
Let’s take a look at three up and three down from a heart-stopping victory for the Wildcats in Palo Alto.
The Wildcats took a 12-point lead with 10:28 remaining in the first half on an Allonzo Trier 3-pointer, and everything looked splendid for Arizona. It appeared as if the ‘Cats were going to cruise to a nice, easy Saturday afternoon win at Stanford.
Things changed from there.
Over the 21 minutes of gametime that followed, Stanford bullied the Wildcats. Shots wouldn’t fall and the Cardinal were doing whatever they wanted. They grabbed a 57-46 lead after Deandre Ayton picked up his fourth foul on a questionable charge call, Sean Miller was called for a technical after an explosion on the sideline, and Stanford’s Dorian Pickens nailed a 3-pointer.
Arizona called timeout and things couldn’t have looked drearier for the Wildcats.
But they answered with authority after the timeout, knocking down shots and stepping up their aggression at the defensive end. This was the type of test the Wildcats needed to pass. And they did so with flying colors.
Whether it was Miller’s conniption or something else that flipped Arizona’s switch, they turned it on and were able to escape Maples Pavilion with a win, despite everything going Stanford’s way. These are the types of wins that matter most in March and while the Cardinal aren’t the best team Arizona has beaten, the manner in which the Wildcats won make it the most important victory of the season so far.
While Ayton struggled with foul trouble for much of the game and was contained pretty well at the offensive end, Dusan Ristic stepped up and produced big numbers when the Wildcats needed it most.
Ristic finished with 18 points on 9-of-13 shooting to go with nine rebounds.
When the Wildcats couldn’t get anything going and just needed a bucket to stay alive, Ristic came up big. During Stanford’s 40-17 run in the middle of the game that completely flipped everything, Ristic scored 10 of the Wildcats’ 17 points.
His touch around the basket was crucial on Saturday afternoon and he ended up with his highest point total since Arizona’s win over Connecticut a month ago.
It is not easy to sweep a road trip in the Pac-12 but the Wildcats got the job done in the Bay Area this week.
That’s another part of Arizona passing this test that is absolutely huge for the team. Every road trip, no matter where, the Wildcats can expect to get punched in the mouth by at least one opponent every single time. It was too late to answer two weeks ago at Colorado. The Wildcats responding to Stanford and pulling one out is a huge character win.
They’ll continue to be tested in opposing arenas throughout the Pac-12 season. This road sweep could set the stage for the Wildcats to have more road success in the coming weeks.
Lack of aggression
Before the Cardinal fouled the Wildcats late in the second half to extend the game, Arizona had only shot seven free throws. They finished 11-of-13, knocking down a few clutch ones to put the game away.
While 11-of-13 is great and Arizona got a win, the Wildcats shooting seven free throws through the first 39 minutes of action is inexcusable. Arizona had no interest in attacking the rim, especially when Stanford switched to a zone defense to shut down an Arizona offense that exploded to start the game.
The Wildcats settled for 27 3-pointers, many of them contested, thanks to little ball movement and a flat out refusal to attack the gaps in the zone.
When the ‘Cats went down 11, they changed their approach, forcing the ball inside and finding open shooters after the defense collapsed, something they should have been doing all game.
With guys like Allonzo Trier and Rawle Alkins who have the ability to go to the rim and, at the very least, draw contact to end up at the line, it’s unacceptable for this team to shoot so few freebies and settle for jumpshots.
Defending opposing bigs
Another game, another big man that embarrassed the Wildcats’ defense.
Reid Travis came away with 20 points and 10 rebounds, going right at Ayton. At one point, following Ayton’s second foul, Travis said, “He can’t guard me.”
Travis was right. Ayton blocked six shots which shouldn’t be overlooked. That was due to Ayton’s raw athleticism that led to a nice glamour stat on a night that he was held to nine points and eight boards.
The problem is, if Ayton and Ristic aren’t sending shots back, they’re getting scored on. Even Stanford forward Michael Humphrey, who isn’t the player Travis is, put up 13 points and 12 rebounds, at times abusing the Arizona bigs.
Arizona’s problems with defending opposing bigs doesn’t seem to be going away anytime soon and could prove to be a huge problem in March.
Stanford only shot 41 percent from the field and were held to 71 points. On the surface, Arizona’s defense did a good job against the Cardinal over 40 minutes.
Truth be told, the Wildcats were slaughtered on the offensive glass, allowing 13 offensive rebounds.
While Arizona did force bad shots on the perimeter and didn’t give up a ton of easy ones in the paint, that all counts for very little if the opponent is getting second chances.
It all panned out for Arizona on Saturday but the Wildcats lock up with the Colorado Buffaloes for a rematch on Thursday night.
Of course, the Buffs are the only team that has beaten Arizona in Pac-12 play thus far.
Colorado made a lot of shots last time out. It’s highly unlikely they can make shots at the rate they did last time. But if the Wildcats are going to keep giving up second chances, the Buffs will make most assuredly make Arizona pay.