Chase Jeter said hard-fought wins like the one the Arizona earned Saturday are “what we sign up for when we come to Arizona.”
The Wildcats outrebounded and outmuscled the Utes, who hung around by draining 11 3-pointers.
“To be able to have that toughness, that will, that fight from everybody to close that game out in overtime was big for us, so I think that’s the best thing that any player could ask for,” Jeter said.
Then he added an interesting remark: “On this squad, especially.”
Because if the Wildcats are going to win their third consecutive Pac-12 championship, they know it will require a collective effort. There are no Lauri Markkanens or Deandre Aytons on the roster that can single-handedly carry Arizona through hard times.
Every player has at least one glaring weakness, but together they can be overcome.
“Like we talked about from the beginning,” UA coach Sean Miller said, “we’re going to win as a team and lose as a team. I don’t think we’re ever going to be a product of a great individual performance.”
Which is partly why the win over Utah — which Miller said was one of the best in his 10 years at Arizona — was so satisfying.
While Jeter and Brandon Randolph each eclipsed the 20-point mark, one could argue it was UA’s bench that won the Wildcats the game.
The unit scored 27 points on 9-of-10 shooting, buoying a starting lineup that, aside from Jeter who tied a career high in points (21) and set a new career high in rebounds (13), didn’t have its best night.
Randolph scored 21 points, but was 7 for 19 from the field and 1 for 9 from 3. Justin Coleman went 1 for 8 from the field as he nurses a shoulder injury. Emmanuel Akot went scoreless in 20 minutes, failing to make much of a mark on the stat sheet in other areas. Brandon Williams was held to 11 points and a team-worst -5 plus-minus.
The Wildcats trailed 20-10 early when Dylan Smith came off the bench to sink two 3s and make a wraparound bounce pass to Jeter for a layup to bring the Wildcats within one.
The enigmatic wing finished with 11 points, making all three triples he attempted while also grabbing four rebounds, earning the “defensive stopper” title from Miller.
Ryan Luther (8 points) made both of his 3s in a 40-second span in the second half that stretched Arizona’s lead to 57-51 with 12 minutes to play, its largest cushion of the game.
Arizona’s starting lineup shot 42 percent, a mark that would have been no where near good enough to beat the Utes, who shot 57 percent and made 11 3s.
“They have a lot of answers on offense. If you just look at our schedule, they are one of the best offensive teams that we’ve faced,” Miller said. “We knew that before and I’m thrilled we were able to score because if we weren’t able to score today we wouldn’t have been to beat them because they’re very difficult to defend.”
He added: “This wasn’t the best we can play.”
Yet, it was still enough, because the Wildcats got contributions from some unlikely heroes. Even Ira Lee chipped in with six points.
“That’s the challenge that we can continue to grow and improve and stay cohesive,” Miller said. “And if that’s the case we’ll have many, many good moments here in the next couple months.”
On Coleman’s health and that last-second shot
Coleman was held to three points and three assists, but Miller gave him a lot of credit for playing 32 minutes. The senior dislocated his non-shooting shoulder on Monday, and Miller said it would have been easy for Coleman to sit out.
“When you dislocate your shoulder it’s really a unique injury and then you can’t function,” Miller said. “You can’t even walk and it scares you. Your shoulder’s out and the pain is excruciating and just kind of watching him handle that on Monday, his practice when it happened, and kind of get through these four or five days it’s not easy.
“He’s not at further risk (by playing), but you can’t judge him on his performance because he’s the furthest thing from being at his best. He didn’t practice Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, played a little bit on Thursday. ... So I hope that now this is over he can really regain his health 100 percent. He seems like he’s close ... because he made some great plays tonight even on that last play of regulation.”
Let’s talk about that last play. Tied at 72 with 5.3 seconds left, Coleman received the inbounds pass and darted past mid-court where he stuttered before pulling up for a long 3 with 2.5 seconds on the clock, an extremely difficult shot that, predictably, barely grazed the iron.
Randolph said the team trusts Coleman in those situations — the senior was voted a team captain and has already made some big shots this season — but Miller had second thoughts about that play call.
“With 5.3 seconds, you have five dribbles. He slowed up a little bit and I would slow up too if I were him,” Miller said. “In hindsight I probably needed to give to the ball to somebody else based on the week that he had gone through.”
Another late-game error that has drawn some ire: Arizona not pursuing a 2-for-1 in the final moments of regulation.
Instead, Coleman took an errant jumper that Utah rebounded with 19 seconds left, allowing the Utes to hold for the final shot. Or at least that’s what a competent team would have done.
The Utes fumbled an entry pass out of bounds on their ensuing possession, setting up Coleman’s desperation heave.
“That’s not an easy task to go coast-to-coast to win a game,” Miller said, defending Coleman once again. “It wasn’t like he missed a wide open layup.”
Miller estimated Coleman is 80 percent healthy and hopes he can get closer to full strength before next week’s Bay Area road trip.
“But there’s two parts to an injury,” Miller said. “Part one is physically like if you’re walking outside right now, how healthy you are, or how you can function. Part two is confidence, repetition, being out of rhythm. When you haven’t done anything from Monday through today, that’s hard as well. So I think he’s anxious and we all are to get him back in the fold and in a rhythm. And hopefully when we show up at Stanford he’s best version of himself.”
On Barefield’s big night, UA’s defense
Sedrick Barefield was the best player in the game and Miller admitted everything changed when he fouled out with 1:44 left in regulation. Utah went 3 for 7 without him.
Before that, Barefield had torched the Wildcats for 26 points on 10 of 19 shooting. The senior hit five threes and dished out four assists.
Miller acknowledged his team had some breakdowns defensively which helped Barefield go off, but wasn’t all that critical about the way it defended him.
“Tonight if he didn’t foul out even he would have crossed the 30 threshold. It wasn’t lack of effort, lack of discipline or anything on our end. He’s just a tremendous Pac 12 guard,” Miller said.
“Sedrick Barefield is really hard to deal with, and most of the time our breakdowns occurred when he was scoring. He’s shooting off the dribble shots 20 feet, 22 feet going left and right, and he’s shooting a high percentage. When he gets me below the line he can score on a big guy. Very few guards can do both of those things, so let’s give credit to him. But it’s something that I think we can continue to grow and get better at because no doubt we missed a few of those assignments.”
As for Utah’s 11-for-21 mark from 3, Miller said his team did as good of job defending as it could have. The Utes entered as one of the top 3-point shooting teams in the Pac-12 and made 19 in their surprising win over ASU on Thursday.
“We tried hard,” Miller said, with a chuckle. “I thought they made a couple of really challenged, tough shots. They are very, very good at creating open 3-point shots. And like all teams like them, they don’t just shoot the ball on position. There are four players on the court at all times that can really shoot the 3-point shot. And so it puts pressure on everybody.”
Protect the house
In a year where the Pac-12 is historically bad (Oregon lost to Oregon State at home while I was writing this), all it will take for Arizona to win the conference is to take care of business at home and avoid sweeps on the road.
Easier said than done, but so far, so good.
“It’s important, it’s something we’ve done well and we did it well this weekend,” Miller said. “You want to win both at home and split on the road. If you do that you’ll be in contention for whether it be a conference championship or a great season. I know how hard it is to win on the road and I think this year’s gonna be hard to win at home, too.”
Saturday’s win was Arizona’s 600th at McKale. The Wildcats are 600-106 all-time at their home arena, which opened in 1973.
Arizona is 91-4 at home since the start of the 2013-14 season, the best mark in the nation.
- Alabama and Iowa State beat No. 15 Kentucky and No. 5 Kansas on Saturday, respectively, a boost to Arizona’s résumé.
- We compiled Richard Jefferson’s best quotes from Saturday’s game. He served as the analyst for Pac-12 Network.