The Arizona Wildcats squeaked past UC Davis 70-68 on Saturday to complete non-conference play with a 9-4 record.
Coleman hit the big shot, but needs to take more
Well, we now know Arizona is going to put the ball in Justin Coleman’s hands when the game is on the line.
It happened in the Maui Invitational, and it happened again Saturday, when the senior drained the game-winning 3-pointer with a minute left, creating space with a step-back with four seconds left on the shot clock.
Coleman credited his teammates and coaches for believing in him, and his experience for allowing him to stay composed in such a big moment, but Chase Jeter, unprompted, heaped some praise on his humble teammate.
“We know Justin can play like that,” he said. “We’ve seen that play before coming down in Hawaii, hitting big shots for us. That’s something that we expect from him, and I know he expects it from himself.”
Before Coleman hit the game-deciding shot, it was shaping up to be one of his worst games as a Wildcat — at least statistically speaking.
Battling foul trouble, he had just four points, two rebounds, and two assists in 25 minutes, plus had a hard time containing speedy TJ Shorts II, who dropped a game-high 25 points. (More on that in a second.)
Coleman exploded in Maui, averaging 20.7 points per game during that three-game stretch, but he has only scored in double figures once in the seven games thereafter.
Coleman said his job is to penetrate and create for others, but he might do that a little too much. He averaged 11.7 shots per game in Maui, but has not taken more than seven shots in a game since.
“We want him to be aggressive, we want him to shoot when he has the opportunity, and he does such a great job of getting in the lane and making people better that I think one of the things is sometimes taking his own open shot and mixing that in that could help him,” said Arizona coach Sean Miller. “I think it can help our team because he certainly one of our team’s best shooters.”
Entering Saturday’s game, Coleman was shooting 42 percent from 3, making him the only Wildcat shooting over 35 percent this season. The Wildcats only shoot 32.6 percent as a team, so, yes, it may benefit them if Coleman is a little more selfish.
Big praise for TJ Shorts II
Both Miller and UA players had high praise for Shorts, who scored all of his points inside the 3-point line, scoring in all sorts of ways near the rim.
“I don’t know too many guards that go 10 for 15 from 2,” Miller said. “That’s what he was. ... We didn’t really have an answer.”
Shorts scored UC Davis’ final six points, three layups that gave the Aggies the lead late, as he beat the Wildcats off the dribble over and over again.
“[Shorts] is a great player, man,” Jeter said. “I mean, I was having trouble with that ball screen all night. ... He’s quick. He’s tough to guard. He’s a great player.”
Shorts was the Big West Player of the Year last season. Heading into Saturday’s game, the 5-foot-9 guard was averaging 13.8 points, 4.9 rebounds, and 4.2 assists per game with an efficient shooting line.
His 25 points were a season-high.
Miller was impressed by UC Davis as a whole. The Aggies are 3-8, but they went 22-11 last year, winning the Big West regular season championship.
“I thought they were really terrific tonight,” Miller said. “It’s not easy because they had such a great season. Last year, they won their regular season championship. It’s a big reason that we played them this year, because we knew we were playing quality opponent that in their own conference has a chance to compete for the NCAA Tournament. Very seldom do you have the reigning Player of the Year in your conference returning and we knew TJ Shorts was really good. And he was great tonight, and they move the ball, they play together defensively, they’re underrated.”
And even though the Aggies don’t appear to be as good as they were last year, Miller knew not to underestimate them, despite the fact they were listed as near 20-point underdogs.
He watched UC Davis give Indiana, Archie Miller’s team, a tough battle last month. The Hoosiers won 76-62, but the Aggies led by as many as 14 in that game.
“They were up double figures in the second half, they were really hard to defend and it was the same here tonight,” Sean Miller said.
Time for Pac-12
Arizona’s next game is Jan. 3 when it opens Pac-12 play at home against Colorado. How does Miller feel about his team heading into that?
“I don’t know, I’ll have to watch this (game) and kind of reflect,” he said, “but what could be our best record, what could be our worst, we’re probably somewhere in between. The Baylor game was very disappointing, but credit Baylor. The Alabama game could have gone either way, we were unable to rebound down the stretch. However, we also had a great second half that allowed us to beat Iowa State. We went all the way to Hartford where we able to be UConn. A couple home games where we’ve been down could have gone either way, we found a way to win. So I think for us, it’s about getting better and learning and being the best team we can be. We do not have a lot of room for error.”
Which, Miller pounded home, is why this Arizona team has to play hard at all times. It simply does not have enough talent to coast against lesser teams and expect to get away with it, no matter how weak the Pac-12 is this season.
“It’s non-negotiable,” he said. “Great effort, playing unbelievably as hard as you can, concentrating, taking good shots, playing a team game, knowing that we rely not just on our starting five but the players who don’t start. And if you watch us, you should get that sense that we’re a real team. If you ever get that sense that we’re not, we could lose at any moment which I think we’ve proved.”
One of the weirdest plays you will ever see happened Saturday when Coleman and UCD’s Damion Squire were called for a charge and block on the same play, respectively.
The McKale Center crowd heartily booed the officials when they announced the ruling after a lengthy review, but Miller, who admittedly had never seen anything like it, thought it was the appropriate call.
“If both officials simultaneously have a block and a charge ... whoever (has the) possession arrow that’s who gets to keep the ball,” he said. “I believe that’s that’s correct. But I have never seen that call and I never will in the next however many years.”
Arizona was awarded the ball, and Brandon Williams missed a 3 on the ensuing possession. The freshman returned to the starting lineup and played 34 minutes, after coming off the bench against Montana due to a bruised right knee.
He finished with nine points on 10 shots, including a 1-for-6 mark from 3. Williams is 3 for 17 from 3 in the last three games.
- Make that two solid outings in a row for Ira Lee. After having seven points and six rebounds against Montana, the sophomore had a season-high eight points against UC Davis. Lee did commit two fouls, but he did not have a turnover. He looked much more comfortable around the rim, converting two and-ones.
- Brandon Randolph scored 15 points, meaning he has still scored in double figures every game this season. More impressive was his rebounding Saturday, tracking down a career-high eight boards. Arizona talked a lot about rebounding better as a team after the Baylor and Alabama losses, and Randolph seems to be listening.
- Devonaire Doutrive and Alex Barcello appear to be battling for the ninth spot in the rotation. They played four and five minutes, respectively, on Saturday. Barcello was the only one to score, draining a 3 from the wing.
- Ryan Luther had a rough night, going without a rebound in 16 minutes, but he almost salvaged it by hitting two 3s, one of which put Arizona ahead 51-48 with 12:33 left. He also inadvertently clocked Shorts in the face, which forced the UC Davis guard out of the game for a few minutes. Looking back, that might have been a momentous play.
- Per KenPom, Saturday’s game was Arizona’s worst defensive performance since the Maui Invitational. That is because the Wildcats allowed 1.1 points per possession to the nation’s No. 309 offense.
- Arizona shot 16 for 25 (64%) from the free-throw line, a rare poor performance for a team that was shooting 75 percent from the stripe entering Saturday. “When we have one of those nights where you get there 25 times and you make only 16, you’re vulnerable. That fact we had nine turnovers is probably the reason that we won,” Miller said.