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What we learned from Arizona’s close call vs. Pepperdine

Put some respect on Dylan Smith’s name

NCAA Basketball: Illinois at Arizona Jacob Snow-USA TODAY Sports

The Arizona Wildcats escaped with a 93-91 victory over the Pepperdine Waves on Thursday in the Wooden Legacy tournament in Anaheim to stay unbeaten.

Our full recap can be read here, postgame quotes can be found here, and here are some additional takeaways from the nail-biter.

Nico Mannion is a big-game player

Sean Miller said this game was a learning experience for Arizona. One of the lessons is that Nico Mannion needs to be trusted in big moments. Who cares if he’s a freshman.

Arizona did not have any timeouts when Colbey Ross hit a game-tying floater with seven seconds left, so its only option was to inbound the ball to Mannion and let him improvise. He dribbled the length of the floor before sinking a running hook shot off the glass.

Ball game.

“That’s who he is,” Miller said. “He’s made a lot of game-winners in his day. That’s what great guards do.”

It would have been interesting to see what Miller would have done if he did have a timeout. But now he knows what to do in the future if such a scenario presents itself: let Mannion do his thing. Don’t get in the way.

“There’s no one that can draw up a play like that,” assistant coach Jack Murphy said on the postgame radio show. “It’s just innate ability.”

Mannion finished with 16 points and 11 assists, his first double-double as a Wildcat. He is the first UA player to record 10 or more assists in a game since Parker Jackson-Cartwright had 11 against Northern Colorado in Dec. 2016.

It put to bed any concern that Mannion would struggle away from McKale Center. If anything, he got better.

“Thank goodness we have him and he’s on our team,” Murphy said.

Josh Green had a signature game

Mannion wasn’t the only freshman who rose to the occasion. Green looked like every bit of the lottery pick many believe he will be.

The strong but springy wing had a couple dunks, layups and floaters in transition, where he does a nice job filling the lane and seems to be unstoppable once he gets a head of steam.

But the game-changer for him is his 3-point shooting. When he is hitting from deep, he is the total package. Green swished back-to-back-to-back 3s from the left wing within a minute, stretching Arizona’s lead to 69-57 with 12:48 left.

At the time, it looked like Pepperdine was toast.

“I thought that gap is really what allowed us to win the game,” Miller said, “but I thought we were going to be able to hold steady.”

Instead, the Waves rallied to grab the lead, only for Green to get it back by drilling his fourth 3 of the night to make it 79-77 with six minutes to play.

His 24 points were his most at Arizona. So, too, were his eight rebounds.

“I’m just glad I came out and showed confidence (in my 3-point shooting),” Green said. “It’s been one of the things I’ve been working on.”

Green was also one of the few bright spots defensively, with three steals and what was arguably the biggest play of the night—saving a loose ball and flinging it behind his back to mid court.

After a mad scramble, Mannion collected it and swung a pass to Dylan Smith for a go-ahead 3-pointer with three minutes left.

Dylan Smith deserves some respect

Between Twitter and our comment sections on here and Facebook, I feel like I have a pretty good grasp of how the UA fan base feels about certain players. For the most part, Dylan Smith is not one of their favorites, to put it gently.

But for all the people who berate him for his sometimes-puzzling shot selection, his unwavering confidence was a big reason—maybe the reason—Arizona won this game.

Like Green, Smith buried three consecutive 3s within a 90-second span to give Arizona leads of 83-81, 86-84, and 89-86 late in the second half.

Also: Smith was one of the few Wildcats who could actually make a free throw, going 2 for 2 from the stripe. The rest of the team went 12 for 22. They were clutch makes too, as they put Arizona ahead 76-74 with 6:29 left.

“It just shows how experienced and composed he was, and we have a lot of respect for him,” Green said.

Remember that the next time you feel like saying something bad about Smith’s game.

Rebounding is Arizona’s “Achilles’ heel”

Arizona had been so dominant in its first six games that it was hard to find a chink in its armor.

We have one now: rebounding. Arizona only outrebounded a much smaller Pepperdine team, 30-27. The Waves grabbed nine offensive boards and turned them into 14 second-chance points.

“When you have the size advantage we have, that isn’t good enough,” Miller said. “Tonight, is another reminder that if you give teams second shots, a lot of bad things happen. Some of their best 3-point shots and biggest scoring possessions happened when they got more than one shot.”

Miller said earlier in the week that he wanted to see more from Zeke Nnaji on the glass, and the freshman delivered with 11 rebounds, despite suffering an apparent shoulder injury in the second half.

Chase Jeter? Eh, not so much. The big man didn’t grab a single board in 25 minutes, which is inexcusable and unfortunate considering it overshadows his first double-digit scoring night of the season.

Perhaps Ira Lee should have seen more action in this one, as he tallied four rebounds in just eight minutes.

“We gotta rebound better,” Mannion said. “We have a good team with good size, and we have depth. We really shouldn’t have an issue with rebounding, but it’s been our Achilles’ heel so far.”

The defense is a work in progress

Arizona’s defensive efficiency dropped from 16th in the country to 41st because of this game. Harsh but fair. The numbers were ugly.

Pepperdine shot 51 percent from the field and 13 for 27 from 3. In addition to those rebounding woes, Arizona also posted its worst takeaway percentage of the season (20.1).

Arizona got beat off the dribble too many times, bit for a lot of pump fakes, and could have closed out harder on Pepperdine’s shooters. But the Waves, a legitimately good offensive team, deserve a lot of credit for hitting a bunch of contested shots, especially Ross, who had 20 points on 14 attempts.

The Wildcats had some bad luck too, with Pepperdine making all but one of its 19 free throws.

“We have a lot of freshmen, we rely on freshmen,” Murphy said. “I would say tonight probably wasn’t Zeke Nnaji’s best night on the defensive end of the floor, but what are you going to do? Take him out? He ends with 16 (points) and 11 (rebounds), and he’s a key cog offensively where they’re doubling them.

“Same with Nico. I mean, Nico has to defend better and we challenge Nico constantly on the defensive end and I think that he rises to that challenge at opportune times, but it has to be everyday, it has to be consistent. And, yeah, the defensive end of the floor is something we have to figure out but that’s normal with a young team. We’re still in November.”

Penn will be another good test

The Wildcats will face the Penn Quakers in the semifinals Friday at 8:30 p.m. PT, another potentially dangerous matchup for Arizona’s defense.

Picked to finish second in the Ivy League, Penn (4-2) already has wins over Alabama, Providence, and UCF. The Quakers went 11 for 24 from 3 against UCF on Thursday and 11 for 22 against Providence last Saturday.

6-foot-8 forward AJ Brodeur is averaging 18.8 points and 9.2 rebounds per game. The senior had 23 points on just 12 shots against UCF, including a trio of 3s.

“They’re going to execute like most Ivy League teams do,” Murphy said. “Run their offense, they have shooting bigs, just like Pepperdine did tonight. And it’s going to put a lot of pressure on our bigs defensively, and then their guards are very good as well. So we have to be there, contest 3s and I’m sure right now Penn’s not going to sleep tonight shaking in their boots after [the Pepperdine game]. They’re probably thinking they can come out here and score 90 as well.”