The Arizona Wildcats had a big lead early, squandered it away, then narrowly avoided disaster, needing all 40 minutes to outlast UC Davis 70-68 on Saturday to wrap up non-conference play.
After leading by as many as 15, Arizona trailed 68-67 with a minute left when Justin Coleman sank a deep step-back 3 late in the shot clock for the game’s final points.
“He’s one of those guys that the bigger the moment, he seems to rise to the challenge,” said UA coach Sean Miller. “He’s had a very important role in our non-conference season.”
None bigger than the one Saturday, which allowed Arizona to avoid a detrimental loss after its defense faltered in the second half.
The Aggies shot 58 percent in the final 20 minutes, outscoring the Wildcats 38-29 as they erased an 11-point halftime lead.
UC Davis guard TJ Shorts II, the reigning Big West Player of the Year, had a game-high 25 points, thrice giving the Aggies the lead in the late goings, killing the Wildcats on pick-and-roll drives. He was 10 for 15 from the field, all his shots coming inside the 3-point line.
“[Shorts] is a great player, man,” said UA big man Chase Jeter. “I mean, I was having trouble with that ball screen all night. He’s quick.”
UC Davis even had two chances to tie or take the lead in the final minute, but both opportunities were fruitless. A potential game-winning 3 from Rogers Printup fell short at the buzzer after a strong contest by Brandon Williams.
“We had some guys have a couple bad nights,” Miller said. “Usually when you think about a bad night, you think of offense. ... We had bad nights on defense. But it’s something to learn from and I’m glad and really thrilled that we’re able to leave with a win and address some of these things. It’s a much different feeling than if you lose the game tonight.”
The No. 1 lesson? Arizona’s room for error is razor thin. And since it cannot overwhelm teams with its talent this year, it has to make up for it with consistent effort.
The Wildcats have mostly played hard this season, but Saturday, particularly in the second half, there were stretches where their effort level dropped a few notches, and the game quickly turned in their opponent’s favor.
“Usually there is a crack in the armor and when that crack comes, we have to fix it,” Miller said. “And I think the attitude and effort level, which has been outstanding, can never waver. If it does, we’re going to lose a few, win a couple, lose a few, win a couple. If we want to be better than that, we can’t lose that. Our defense has to stay steady. Our defense has improved from the first game to tonight, but we took a major step back especially in the second half.”
The Wildcats led 41-30 heading into the locker room, before UC Davis (3-8) made six of its first eight shots in the second half to tie the game at 48 with 14:17 left.
At that point, Coleman and Jeter both had four fouls, forcing Miller to dig into his bench. He opted to go small to combat the speedy Shorts, which helped UA’s defense, but hurt its offense.
Arizona only shot 36 percent in the second half, unable to pull away from the Aggies, who seemed to get more and more confident the more they hung around.
“We went small and we extended (our defense). I thought our guys did a great job of playing them outside the 3-point line,” Miller said. “And if they were going to score they’re gonna have to score inside the arc. That’s the advantage of kind of downsizing. The disadvantage is offensively you have a lot of guards out there and you’re almost playing a game in a different way than you practice if that makes sense. But if I had to do it over, I’d do the same thing because it was our best chance to win.”
Still, Shorts was relentless. Tied at 62, he drove for two to give UC Davis its first second-half lead with five minutes left. He then probed for another layup to put UC Davis up 66-64 with 3:35 left.
Coleman split a pair of free throws to make it 66-65 with 3:18 left, his first point of the night. Jeter then sank a pair of foul shots to put UA back ahead 67-66 with 1:54 left.
Jeter finished with a team-high 16 points. Brandon Randolph added 15. In all, Arizona shot 47 percent.
Shorts made one last hurrah, knifing into the lane and scoring over Jeter to put UC Davis up by one with a minute left, setting the stage for Coleman’s game-winner.
Arizona’s initial set-play did not work, so Coleman took things upon himself and fired away with four seconds on the shot clock.
“He had no choice,” Miller said. “It’s hard on those scrambled plays. You just don’t know if they are going to be in a zone or a man. ... The ball gets in, you just don’t want guys to panic at that point. And one of the things we talked about is if we get it in and shot doesn’t present itself, you still have nine seconds just make sure we get the ball back to Justin and he can make a play.
“And obviously thank goodness he did.”
The Wildcats (9-4) now have a four-day Christmas break before they begin prepping for their Pac-12 opener, a home game against Colorado on Jan 3.
A heart-pounder against UC Davis was not how Miller wanted to cap non-conference play, but maybe it will do the Wildcats some good in the end.
“We can learn from this game, for sure,” Coleman said. “We made a lot of mistakes on defense, so we want to go home, enjoy the four days for break, come back and watch film and just learn from it like the Baylor game. We got outrebounded and we learned from that. Now we’re learning from the UC Davis game.”