After losing to two top-ten teams in Maui, the Arizona Wildcats are back on track after a 76-72 road victory over a dangerous UConn Huskies squad.
The game was expected to be one of the closest matchups of the weekend across the country, and it definitely fit that billing, with no team holding a lead greater than eight points at any time.
Here’s three good and three bad things to takeaway from the game.
Maintaining a Lead
It was well-known coming into the season that this Arizona team would be the first in many years that wouldn’t be able to skate through on talent alone. This team proved today that they can grind out close games in tough environments, and it’s only December.
After briefly going down by a single point, Arizona took the lead on a Justin Coleman layup and never looked back, despite the game remaining close for the remaining 26 minutes. It took effort and disregarding a raucous Hartford crowd for UA to pull out a victory.
If there’s a close game, the surest way to pull out victory is to make your free throws. The Wildcats took that advice and ran with it, going 19-22 from the line and closing the game out 12-13 with the Huskies trying to take back the lead.
Even more encouraging than the outrageous 86.4% mark from the charity stripe was the number of players making those vital shots in the last two minutes. Both Brandon Williams and Brandon Randolph played key roles, with Randolph making all seven of his attempts and Williams icing the game with his two makes with four seconds on the clock. Also pivotal was the foul shooting of Ryan Luther, who made three of four despite historically shooting in the 60s on free throw percentage. It’s unlikely the ‘Cats will be able to lean on such good free throw numbers forever, but they sure timed their best performance from the line perfectly.
Probably the second most important way to create an edge in a close game is by winning the turnover battle. Again, the Wildcats came up clutch in this regard in the rowdy XL Center against a strong team.
In the overall game, the Huskies turned the ball over 19 times to Arizona’s 14 times. Again though, the most impressive thing about that statline is the dominance late, with no turnovers coming in the final three minutes of the game. When you’re in a one or two possession game late and you’re making your free throws and avoiding turnovers, chances are you’ll win.
It’s also worth mentioning that the defense did a good job of creating turnovers to counteract the offense’s stingy control of the ball.
Despite never trailing for the entire second half, Arizona could never quite put away the Huskies, and the main culprit there is a dreadful 17.6% performance from behind the arc.
Despite great performances from both players, Brandon Randolph and Dylan Smith showed why it’s dangerous having few players accounting for almost all of Arizona’s three pointers.
In this game the two combined for 9 out of the team’s 17 shots from outside, and while they did make the team’s only three shots from deep, they still shot an average 33% between the two. The rest of the team was 0 for 8, including fellow sharpshooter Justin Coleman going 0-3.
It was no secret that this edition of the Wildcats would be relying on fewer players than Miller was accustomed to. Still, seeing only eight players record serious minutes with seven recording the lion’s share was a bit disconcerting.
Starters Chase Jeter, Justin Coleman, Emmanuel Akot, and Brandon Williams all recorded between 25 and 28 minutes, a great amount to have. Brandon Randolph, who’s quickly becoming the main breadwinner for the team, played for 36 minutes, shooting over a quarter of UA’s total field goal attempts.
While he played great and showed little signs of fatigue, that kind of performance isn’t sustainable long term. The only bench players who recorded serious minutes were Dylan Smith and Ryan Luther, and Luther’s minutes came mostly due to foul trouble from Chase Jeter. Ira Lee played 11 minutes, and Alex Barcello added four, but long-term fatigue may start to set in at the worst time possible in February or March at this rate.
Jeter’s Foul Trouble
I mentioned above that Chase Jeter fouled out late in the game. This was a huge development despite Ryan Luther’s stellar performance, simply because Jeter has established himself as a dominant big man who Arizona needs to produce points.
In his 25 minutes, Jeter went 6 for 9 from the field, and a not-awful-for-a-center 2 for 4 from the line. His 14 points were leading the team when he fouled out, and it took that 7 for 7 performance from the free throw line from Brandon Randolph to overtake Jeter. On top of that, Jeter easily led the team in rebounds, with seven of them, including a crucial offensive rebound with 10 minutes left.
It’s not as though Jeter is the second coming of Deandre Ayton, but his presence on the court clearly helps the team, and losing him to fouls could have been a crippling blow if not for Luther’s solid bench play.
The Wildcats now sit at 6-2 overall entering December. They return to action against Utah Vaelly in McKale Center at 7 p.m. MST on December 6.