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What we learned from Arizona’s loss at ASU

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NCAA Basketball: Arizona at Arizona State Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

TEMPE — The 22nd-ranked Arizona Wildcats could not complete the sweep of the Arizona State Sun Devils on Saturday, blowing a 22-point lead in an eventual 66-65 loss that was capped by a game-winning layup by Alonzo Verge with nine seconds left.

The Wildcats fall to 13-6 overall and 3-3 in the Pac-12. Our recap can be found here, postgame interviews can be watched here, and below are some additional takeaways.

Mannion’s foul trouble was costly...or maybe it was Miller’s lack of trust that doomed Arizona

Returning to his hometown, Nico Mannion was dialed in from the get-go. He smiled and clapped as he ducked into the tunnel after pregame warmups, energized by the jeers permeating from the ASU student section.

Once the ball was tipped, he quickly drilled four 3s, his last one giving Arizona a 34-13 lead with 6:51 left in the first half. Mannion scowled as he went back on defense, and it looked like a sweep was in store.

Then everything changed when he picked up his second foul with 5:54 left in the period and sat the rest of the half. The Sun Devils finished on a 6-0 run, cutting their deficit to 43-30 heading into the break, not that bad considering they were trailing by 22 at one point.

And when Mannion re-entered in the second half, he was ice cold. And stayed that way. He started 4 for 5 from the field, but finished 5 for 11, his lone make the result of a generous goaltending violation.

With Mannion unable to find his shot, and also being sidelined for six minutes of the second half due to more foul trouble, Arizona’s offense bogged down. The Wildcats shot 28 percent in the second half, missing all eight of their 3-point attempts.

Meanwhile, the turnovers piled up, as they committed a season-high 18 on the night. They drove without purpose and were sloppy with their dribbling.

Zeke Nnaji had eight second-half points, but did not get his first touch until midway through the period, a crushing development with the way everyone else was struggling.

“We were more locked in the first 12, 16 minutes of the first half... but the rest of the game they ramped it up, they turned us over, they made more plays,” said UA guard Dylan Smith.

Smith wasn’t willing to use Mannion’s foul trouble as an excuse—“we got other good guards on our team,” he said — but the numbers fend for themselves. Arizona was up 34-15 when Mannion picked up his second foul and was outscored 51-32 from thereon.

Thus, it’s fair to wonder how things would have been different if Miller trusted him to play through it.

“Obviously Nico is an important part of our team, and him getting two fouls there, that wasn’t good for us,” Miller said.

Hazzard was denied a chance to be a second half scoring threat

Maybe senior Max Hazzard could have provided the offense the Wildcats so desperately needed in the second half, but he was in the doghouse and did not play in the period.

Why? Rewind to the end of the first half. Arizona led 43-28 with 23 seconds left, with a chance to take the final shot of the period. But after a timeout, Hazzard attacked the basket, forcing up a difficult shot in traffic with eight seconds still on the clock.

It was off the mark, ASU got the rebound, scored in transition to cut the deficit to 43-30, and Hazzard’s night was done.

“When it’s your ball at the end of the half, it doesn’t matter where the game is played, you want to take the last shot,” Miller said. “You don’t want to jump into somebody with 13 seconds left. It’s like, which team are you playing for? You take the last shot, that’s discipline. That’s how you win basketball games. For us, we have to go with the guys that are going to play that way.”

That’s a weird answer since Smith and Jemarl Baker Jr. combined for two points on seven shots in the second half, forcing up several difficult looks.

Hazzard entered the night 9 for his last 16 from 3, but only had time to hoist one against the Sun Devils, missing a quick trey in transition.

Arizona still can’t get it done on the road and youth is not an excuse

All that positive momentum the Wildcats built in the blowouts of Colorado and Utah is gone, and now it will take everything they have to avoid a serious downswing.

Still winless on the road, Arizona now heads to Washington and Washington State.

Gut-check time.

“I mean, you can paint a bad picture with that,” Miller said.

Miller said earlier in the week that we’re at the point of the season where freshmen are no longer freshmen, meaning youth is not a valid excuse for their struggles away from McKale Center. At this point, the youngins should know how difficult it is to win on the road.

“We harp a lot on that in the locker room,” Smith said.

So, in Miller’s view, it is a lack of a consistent, 40-minute effort that has doomed UA. There is at least one stat that agrees with him: the Wildcats surrendered nine offensive boards in the second half, which led to 12 second-chance points for the Sun Devils.

That was after ASU only had two offensive boards in the first half.

“Although we outrebounded them 43-40, they were clearly the more aggressive, hungrier team,” Miller said. “We had a number of balls go through our hands, we had block outs that we missed. They got those loose balls, those 50-50 balls. And that’s really plagued our team from the first game until now. When you’re on the road your margin of error certainly disappears.

“You have to make plays, you have to make layups, you have to make open shots, you have to make free throws. You can’t turn the ball over down the stretch, got to be able to get a shot at the basket. You don’t get rewarded for playing well for part of the game, you have to play well for the entire game. Some of playing well isn’t making the shot, it’s blocking the shot, getting the rebound.

“We’re not a confident group, we really aren’t. It’s about performance. You have to grade our team, me, as a coach, you have to grade our team on how we do, not how we’re supposed to be. I wish I could help our guys break through. I’m the coach, it really starts with me. I’m going to try even harder than I am to give those guys as much confidence as I can and see if we can break through.”

Poor late-game execution reared its ugly head again

As terribly as things went in the second half, Arizona still had a chance to win at the end. Two, actually.

With 33 seconds left and a one-point lead, Mannion ran a pick-and-pop with Stone Gettings that yielded a wide-open 3 from the wing, but Gettings missed the potential dagger and ASU got the rebound, setting the stage for Alonzo Verge Jr.’s game-winning layup.

He toasted Baker.

Dribbling at the wing, the ASU guard faked to his right as if he was going to use a screen, then crossed over to his left, leaving Baker in the dust. It did not help that Arizona planned to switch the pick-and-roll, leaving Baker a step slow when Verge decided not to use it.

“That could have been my fault on the last play,” Miller said. “We went small, and when you go small you have an opportunity to switch pick and rolls so you don’t get exposed. We kept Zeke in, and Zeke’s pretty mobile, but at the end it didn’t matter.”

Arizona had nine seconds to answer, but failed to produce a clean look. Mannion dribbled up the left side before dishing to a cutting Josh Green, who was swallowed up by a host of ASU defenders near the elbow, ending his night with a miserable 0-for-8 shooting line and a season-low two points.

It was the latest instance of Arizona failing to conjure up something effective in the final seconds, the losses to St. John’s and Oregon being the other notable times, when Mannion missed highly-contested floaters at the buzzer.

Frustrating, for sure. And it didn’t help that Miller had burned Arizona’s last timeout minutes earlier, forcing Mannion to improvise instead of drawing up a play.

“We’re right there to win,” Smith said. “We’re just one or two plays away. And in this case, we could have put them to bed in the second half, but we failed to make those plays and we just gotta grow up. It’s how college basketball is.”

Smith was a culprit too, missing two free throws with 3:25 left that would have tied it at 63, not all that different from when he missed the front end of one-and-one late in the loss at Oregon.

“It’s hard winning on the road and we got a young team but we have some experienced players like myself,” he said. “I gotta do a better job leading. That’s all there is to it.”