Up until Saturday’s loss to the Washington Huskies, the Arizona Wildcats had a penchant for winning close games in Pac-12 play.
Eight of their first 10 conference games were decided by nine points or less, and Arizona won seven of them. The other two games were blowout victories.
So when the Wildcats found themselves in yet another nail-biter Saturday, it felt like they were going to find some way to win.
And it even looked like that was going to be the case when Deandre Ayton went to the line with a chance to put Arizona up one with 22 seconds left.
But this time the UA would not be so fortunate.
Not only did Ayton, a 73 percent free throw shooter, clank the potential go-ahead free throw, but he was punished for making a good defensive play on the ensuing possession.
As the final seconds ticked away, Ayton swatted Jaylen Nowell’s potential game-winning jumper. But rather than the ball landing out of bounds or in the hands of one of Ayton’s teammates, it bounced right to Washington forward Dominic Green in the corner.
The game ended a second later. Green splashed a game-winning 3.
“We’ve been in so many games like this and when the ball bounces your way, which it certainly has a number of times this year for us, you start to have that badge of honor so to speak. Like, man we really know how to win or finish games or Arizona makes plays when we need to,” Arizona coach Sean Miller told reporters afterward.
“And there’s a lot of truth to that, including tonight. But when you continue to be in one-possession games, every once in a while the other team can do the same thing. And when Washington needed the big shots, the ability to score, they did.”
Green had hit a game-tying 3 from the opposite corner just a minute sooner. That one came after a block, too. So did Noah Dickerson’s layup that put Washington up 75-73 shortly after that.
But Miller wasn’t willing to pin Arizona’s loss on a few bad bounces. Instead, he blamed his team’s defense which had plenty of opportunities to close the game out.
The Wildcats made their final five shots of the second half and even had a three-point lead at one point. But each time the Huskies responded with a bucket of their own.
Arizona wound up scoring 47 points in the second half against what was the conference’s best defense since the start of league play, but still fell short.
“And if you can score 47 points on them in the second half, you have to feel pretty good about what you’re doing offensively. But we had no answer for them on defense,” Miller said.
“And that’s been a part of who we’ve been from the onset. My hope is that we can gradually keep working and improve because our offense tonight ... you shoot 50 percent from the field and have 12 turnovers against that type of defense, that’s something I would have signed up for.
“But our defense against them, if you think about who they are, Dickerson is a real emerging low-post player. He had 25 (points). You look at Dominic Green, an excellent 3-point shooter, and you know what? I think a couple of his shots happened on a blocked shot, a loose ball. That happens, but nonetheless he was 4-for-5.
“And I think that Jaylen Nowell is one of the best freshmen in the country and he had 14. Whatever they wanted to do on offense, they did to us, and we couldn’t outscore them. We couldn’t outscore them. That’s really it.”
Arizona center Dusan Ristic, who had 21 points and 10 rebounds on 9-of-13 shooting, echoed his coach’s sentiments.
“Our offense wasn’t a problem at all,” he said. “I think Washington is one of the best defensive teams in the Pac-12 and we still managed to score 75 points. Our defense is why we lost tonight.”
Washington wound up shooting 48 percent from the field and 8-of-14 from 3 to go with 22 second-chance points.
“Our effort in the first half wasn’t good enough,” Ristic said. “In the second half, it was better but it was too late. But we gotta play both halves equally good on defense and that’s the reason we lost.”
Not because Green happened to be in the right place in the right time following Ayton’s emphatic block. Or because Washington banked in two 3s earlier in the game.
“We’ve had plenty of good luck,” Miller said. “Dusan made a 3 (against Utah) and I know everybody felt good about that, but it went in. We’ve had a couple shots at the end of the clock in McKale that have gone in. We’ve had a couple plays that could have gone either way and they went our way.
“And tonight the ball bounced Washington’s way. But to their credit, they played hard, they had a great crowd, players made big plays. It was certainly an exciting game if you’re not the coach at Arizona.”
But if you are the head coach at Arizona?
“It’s a terrible feeling,” Miller said. “I know that Washington completely deserved to win this game. We couldn’t get a stop in the end. We were exchanging points in the last four or five minutes and we didn’t lose the game because of the last shot. We lost because of some other things, mainly we couldn’t stop their offense in the last four or five minutes.”
It won’t be surprising if Miller is saying something similar after a game in March. Because if there is anything that’s going to lead to Arizona’s undoing this season, it’s going to be its defense.
The Wildcats now rank 106th in college basketball in adjusted defensive efficiency, per KenPom.
The only time Arizona has ever fared worse under Miller was in 2009-10, his first season as the head coach in Tucson. The Wildcats had the 108th defense that year and missed the NCAA Tournament.
Luckily, Arizona has the No. 6 offense this season and stars like Ayton and Allonzo Trier to fall back on, and they can simply outscore lesser teams which is what they have been doing throughout Pac-12 play. The first-place Wildcats only have the sixth-best defense in the conference.
Sure, that formula is working now, but history has shown that is not a model of success in the postseason.
No team has ever won a national championship with a defense ranked outside the Top 20 in the KenPom era (since 2001-02). Most title teams have a top-10 defense.
And the worst defensive team to ever reach the Final Four in the KenPom era was VCU in 2011. It had the No. 78 defense.
So even though Arizona is destined to win the Pac-12 and has two of the top offensive players in the sport, it is difficult to be optimistic about the team’s overall outlook.
The Wildcats desperately need to improve defensively before March Madness, but they only have one month to do so.
Will they beat the buzzer?
Follow Ryan Kelapire on Twitter at @RKelapire