When Ira Lee finally had a chance to catch his breath on Saturday, the sprightly forward was rewarded with a chorus of cheers from Arizona Wildcats fans, their way of showing their appreciation for his unceasing effort in a 75-54 win over the Colorado Buffaloes.
“Love it, man,” he said afterward. “I’ve been here for three years, I’ve worked hard, worked hard with my teammates, coaches always believed in me, so it’s just beautiful to hear that. It’s beautiful to hear that with a win too.”
The junior had six points, including two thunderous dunks, and seven rebounds in the victory, his highest scoring total since Dec. 11 vs. Omaha and his highest rebounding total since Dec. 7 against Baylor.
Lee’s contributions as a rebounder and rim-protector were vital in Arizona’s drubbing of a usually-gritty Colorado team. Lee played a season-high 26 minutes, posting a +13 plus-minus, setting the tone in a game the Wildcats shockingly outrebounded the Buffaloes, 39-25.
Together, he and Zeke Nnaji outrebounded CU’s acclaimed duo of Tyler Bey and Evan Battey, 19-5.
“Ira Lee was outstanding,” Arizona coach Sean Miller said. “His energy, his physicalness, he set the tone for us, especially in the second half. He just played very, very hard. He finished around the basket, he rebounded at both ends. Ira is one of our most consistent practice players. I think the guys on the team will tell you that, and when you’re like that sometimes you really can break through in games. He had a big day.”
Nico Mannion had similar praise.
“Me and him played on the same AAU team,” the UA point guard said. “I was a couple years younger, but I was at all the games when he was 17U and I was 15U, so a lot of people take it as a surprise but I’ve kind of seen it before. I saw all those dunks back in high school when he was a junior, senior, so it’s good to see it start coming around again.”
For a while there, it looked like Lee was fading out of Arizona’s rotation. He played 11 combined minutes in the losses at Oregon and Oregon State last week, part of a five-game stretch in which he played seven minutes or fewer in all five games.
He didn’t sulk. He just got back in the gym.
“I give credit to my teammates,” Lee said. “They kept me locked in, and I just came in every day and did the same thing I do every day—work hard, get my extra reps in, get my extra runs in. I didn’t change anything. But I give the big credit to my teammates. They’re always talking to me, ‘stay ready, stay ready.’ They’re just always letting me know that I’m a good player and I kept that in mind. I just kept going, that’s all.”
Lee was productive in a 12-minute stint Thursday vs. Utah and was afforded an even bigger opportunity Saturday, thanks in part to Chase Jeter missing another game with a back injury.
But even when Jeter returns—whenever that may be—Lee has made a compelling case to maintain this new, bigger workload.
Arizona has been looking for help on the glass all season and Lee, statistically, is its best player in that department. Generally, it has been other things that have prevented him from earning steady minutes, like fouls, turnovers, mental mistakes, and even an off-the-court issue.
But Lee has gone eight straight games without a turnover and has only committed seven fouls in that stretch as well, four of them coming Saturday.
“So much of the game you have to go with a hot hand,” Miller said. “That would be Max (Hazzard) the other night. You’ve got to go with guys that are playing well, Dylan Smith. And to your point, Ira deserved more of an opportunity because of how well he was playing. Ira, in an old-fashioned way, is earning a bigger role because of how he performed.”
After the game, Lee tweeted “only up from here.” Whether or not that is true when it comes to his minutes remains to be seen. Either way, he tries to approach every game the only way he knows how.
“Just come in ready, come in ready to win, make the unselfish plays, make sure everybody stays together, make sure everybody plays hard,” he said. “And I felt like I did that today and I’ll continue doing that.”