LAS VEGAS — The final game of the 2018-19 season followed the same script as many that preceded it, though the Arizona Wildcats were blissfully hoping it wouldn’t.
As it’s been all season, they struggled to make open shots and their legs got heavier and heavier as each minute ticked off the clock, leading to another second-half meltdown.
“The last three games we were tied with every single team at the half and we just wore down,” said Arizona center Chase Jeter. “Not to say that was anything intentional or that makes it OK, but I think I’ve been saying this all year. Being able to fight for 40 minutes (is what we need to improve). We’re going to be in many more fights ... and I think the most important thing for next year is for us to have that mindset of being a dog for 40 minutes.”
Next year is now this year for the Wildcats, who will not be playing in the postseason for the first time since 2009-10. With a 17-15 record, Arizona does not even expect to be invited to the NIT.
Ira Lee, a bright spot who scored 11 points Wednesday, called it a “weird” dichotomy from last season when the Wildcats, housed in the same locker room at T-Mobile Arena, were celebrating their second straight Pac-12 Tournament championship.
“I’m not used to being on the losing side,” Lee said.
Yet, a fall from grace was expected this season. The Wildcats lost their entire starting five, including No. 1 draft pick Deandre Ayton, and their once-top-ranked 2018 recruiting class disintegrating because of UA’s involvement in the federal investigation into college basketball corruption.
It left the Wildcats with a makeshift roster devoid of any star players. Brandon Randolph, who was held to two points Wednesday, finished as Arizona’s leading scorer at 12.4 points per game, the lowest for a UA team since Jimmy Steele averaged 12.1 in 1944-45.
On top of that, Emmanuel Akot transferred midseason and two of Arizona’s top talents in Jeter and Brandon Williams dealt with injuries in Pac-12 play, depleting the team’s depth and effectively derailing a 4-0 start to conference play.
“I think we should be proud how we handled adversity,” said senior forward Ryan Luther, who led Arizona with 16 points in his final college game. “We weren’t perfect, we weren’t the best team, but we stuck together.”
Head coach Sean Miller echoed those sentiments.
“It’s not easy to play through a lot of adversity and obstacles, and that adversity and those obstacles came in a lot of different forms,” he said.
“I’ve never questioned the togetherness of this group. I’ve never questioned the effort. Sometimes you try to get them to play as hard as they possibly can, because we don’t have that room for error. But we ended about where I thought we would. 17-15, you’re hoping maybe for a couple more (wins) and if we were healthier, maybe that would have came.
“But we were 4-11 down the stretch. We were much better earlier in the year, and that happens over time. The depth of your team is always challenged in college basketball, and that was our Achilles’ heel.”
It showed Wednesday. After Arizona seemingly used all its energy to erase an 11-point first-half deficit, USC reeled off a 21-5 run to begin the second half and never looked back. The Wildcats didn’t even have enough firepower to trim the deficit to single digits.
“We always come into halftime and things are feeling great. It’s tied up or we’re up.” Lee said. “And things just go downhill in the second half. Part of that comes from depth. In Pac-12, we had Brandon and Chase hurt, a couple guys leaving. That hurt us a lot.”
Arizona shot 32 percent in the second half, its offense leading to its demise as it has all season. The Wildcats were in the bonus for the final 16 minutes of the game, but still were unable to capitalize, only making five trips to the free throw line in the second half.
To make those shooting woes insurmountable, Arizona committed 12 turnovers, its fourth straight game it coughed up the ball a dozen or more times.
“Like Coach said, our room for error was so tiny, we couldn’t make careless turnovers,” Williams said.
Williams, a sprightly freshman who the Wildcats can build around moving forward, called the trying season a learning experience. And what matters now, several other players agreed, is how the Wildcats bounce back from it.
Lee, well aware that Arizona is bringing in the No. 1 recruiting class, promised it will be a grand response.
“I haven’t really thought about it, but I know it’s going to be something special,” he said. “Trust me.”