It’s in no way hyperbole to say the Arizona Wildcats will only go as far as their three mercurial freshmen will take them.
But just as important to Arizona this season will be the play of its upperclassmen, of which it has far more than the average power conference team. And on Sunday night it was those grizzled veterans who took center stage, leading the Wildcats to their first holiday tournament title since 2014.
Fifth-year seniors Max Hazzard, Chase Jeter and Dylan Smith combined for 45 points, 33 in the first half, as 14th-ranked Arizona (9-0) beat Wake Forest 73-66 in the Wooden Legacy championship game in Anaheim, Calif.
Smith had 20, his most in three seasons with Arizona, making 6 of 9 shots including 4 of 5 from 3-point range. He averaged 15.3 points in three Wooden outings after coming into the tourney averaging 6.2 per game.
Jeter had 17, his third straight double-digit scoring game, making 7 of 10 shots, with nine rebounds. His 46 points in Anaheim were the most he’d had in a three-game stretch for the Wildcats since scoring 54 last January against Cal, Stanford and Utah.
And Hazzard added eight, going 2 for 3 from 3-point range after scoring just two points in the first two Wooden games.
A fourth fifth-year senior, forward Stone Gettings, missed the game after suffering a concussion in Friday’s 92-82 win over Penn. Had he been available, though, odds are he might have had his best game with the UA based on the performances of his fellow Wildcat elders.
Freshmen Josh Green, Nico Mannion and Zeke Nnaji combined for just 22 points on 6-of-24 scoring, their worst collective output of the season, though Green and Nnaji chipped in elsewhere with 12 and eight rebounds, respectively, while Mannion had seven assists.
Everyone was involved in a much better defensive effort than Arizona put forth against Penn and Pepperdine, particularly on the perimeter. Wake Forest (5-3) was 5 of 16 from 3, compared to the 26-of-61 showing from the Wildcats’ previous two opponents, and shot 32 percent overall.
Arizona led 39-33 at halftime and grew the advantage to as much as 15, keeping it in double digits until the 6:17 mark when Wake pulled within 64-55.
Nnaji fouled out on a moving screen with 4:16 to go, then Ira Lee picked up his fifth foul with 3:26 left, causing Arizona to go with four guards and Jeter. Wake got as close as 68-64 with 43 seconds left but Green hit two free throws with and the Deacons airballed a 3 on the ensuing possession, with Smith icing it via two foul shots with 23 seconds to go.
Early on, the Demon Deacons had the edge in a game that played like a rec-league pickup game.
The Wildcats made five of their first seven shots, scoring 14 points in just over four minutes of play, then missed six in a row as Wake went on a 14-2 run to lead 23-16 with 11:23 left.
Hazzard ended that run with a pair of long threes, sparking a 14-0 run. The Demon Deacons missed nine straight shots and committed their first two turnovers after going without one for almost the first 12 minutes of the game.
The only Wake player who Arizona couldn’t slow down early was center Olivier Sarr, a 7-foot junior who had 13 points in the first half. He was 4 of 7 from the field while the rest of Wake went 6 of 23, the team missing 15 of its last 18 shots before halftime.
Sarr finished with 21 points and 13 rebounds while senior guard Brandon Childress had 19 but was 4 of 18 from the field.
Mannion was named Wooden Legacy MVP after averaging 16.3 points, with a career-high 24 against Penn and 16 vs. Pepperdine including the game-winning shot with 2.1 seconds left. Jeter and Smith also made the all-tournament team after each scoring in double figures in all three games.
Arizona is off until Saturday when it faces Baylor in Waco, Texas. The Wildcats lost at home last December to the Bears, who are 5-1 with a win over Villanova and a loss to Washington.