It was far from a impressive victory for the Arizona Wildcats, but Tuesday’s 70-64 home win over Montana was still better than heading into the holiday break with a loss.
Our recap from the game can be found here. Below is what coach Sean Miller had to say about Arizona’s final nonconference game.
On free throw shooting: “We’re working on it. We’re a better free throw shooting team than we’ve shown. We won the game against Eastern Washington because of our free throw shooting. Moving forward, we’re not going to have the luxury of shooting 55 percent and winning, it’s really one of several things that hurt us at Stanford. We were really poor from the free throw line and that hurt us. So we’re working on it. I look at Azuolas, 1 for 6, it can become a confidence thing quickly from the line for young players. I was really excited to see James bounce back. I mean, you talk about confidence, he’s 20 for 20 outside of the Stanford game in the last three games, 20 for 20, and he was 2 for 9 against Stanford, so he bounced back from the line. But that’s what really good free throw shooters do. You may have a subpar performance, you put it behind you. But clearly, we’re gonna have to do a good job. A big part of it is, when you shoot 34 free throws in a game, you did a lot of good things on offense, but we weren’t able to take advantage of it because we didn’t convert.”
On Azuolas Tubelis: “You start to see him come into his own on the defensive end. If you remember the Stanford game, one of the biggest plays down the stretch was Oscar Da Silva drove the ball hard with his right hand against Azuolas, and Azuolas had a great block, which gave us a chance to win. Down the stretch tonight he did the same thing. He had three steals and two blocks. So he’s doing things. You have three steals, two blocks, nine rebounds, four offensive rebounds. He made a three. What he didn’t do is make his free throws. If he would have, he would have had a great game. You guys can see it, he’s a very talented young player. And keep in mind, if we’re over in Lithuania right now, there’s a lot of things we’re still getting used to. For example, the technical foul, him hanging on the rim, he had no idea that he got a technical foul, even after it was called. I almost feel bad as his coach, because one time at our end he touched the basketball on the rim. In FIBA you can touch the ball while it’s on the rim, and you can hang on the rim. That’s something that he learned tonight. And that’s, why games are so important for this year’s team because we just have such inexperience, and you feel that. There’s some head-scratching plays that happened to our team. My hope is that we have less of those as we move on.”
On the team learning from past games: “A great example is, I think we drew four charges tonight. And that might be more than we’ve drawn all year. We learned from the Stanford game, I’ve addressed it, I’ve talked about it, we’re working on it. Those four charges are big plays in the game, in today’s game, but it’s the first time we’ve started to do that. And when you start to do that, you become a better defensive team.”
On starting Azuolas over Christian Koloko: “I think it gives us more of a scoring punch. It allows Jordan Brown to guard the five man, which again, as we learn our team, I think Jordan is much more fluid, much more sure of himself. I think it helps his offense when he guards the other team’s five. Certain games, maybe we can slide them over, but Azuolas can do a lot of different things and we see his progress right now almost on a daily basis. It was just based on watching our team, what’s best for our team, we felt that that group of five gave us the best chance to get off to a good start.”
On James Akinjo: “James is confident in himself. Two for nine is is more of an outlier from the free throw line. But he’s very confident, sure of himself. Keep in mind he hasn’t played real games in a long time. And it’s going to take him, like all of our players, getting used to it. His 16 shots, I thought he had some good looks, that he missed and made, but he probably had a couple that maybe he could pivot and make a pass, or maybe keep his dribble and dribble out and then play it safe. He doesn’t have a confidence issue and I was excited to see him come out and play the way he did it the beginning, for sure.”
On the slow starts: “Montana did a good job early in the game of scoring on us. If you think about it, if we make our free throws. Early in the game like we couldn’t make a free throw. You look at the scoreboard you have to keep in mind we went there four times and missed all four, I think we started off 0 for 4, 0 fot 5, so that’s part of our slow start. But if you look at the game, they were 12 for 23 from the field in the first half. They were 3 for 6 from the 3-point line in the first half. And they were 9 for 9 from the free throw line in the first half. In the second half, they were 8 for 23 from the field, 1 for four 4 three, and they got to the foul line 13 times. They ended up with 19 turnovers. Our defense was better in the second half. I felt like we wore them down a little bit. And that happens with man-to-man, it’s like a running game in football. You can’t just judge the running in first quarter or first half. Sometimes the game wears on, you can really break it open. Our man to man defense got better as the game wore on, and I thought we defended them pretty well.”
On growing pains: “We’re gonna have some tough moments. There’s no getting around it. I do think our best basketball is in front of us. We have a number of players that—I’ll use Oscar Da Silva as an example. He looked like a young freshman that had a chance to maybe be a good player at Stanford as a freshman. He was better as a sophomore. He was an all- conference player last year, and he’s an NBA player right now. But his progression is four years. We have a number of players on our team that their best days are ahead of them, but they’re not this year. They’ll improve this year as it goes along. And you see it, right, mistakes that are made, just like head scratching plays. The game maybe could be 75-62 instead of 70-64, just being a little bit smarter. We’re coaching and we’re trying to teach them, and they’re doing a great job of receiving that.”
On Jordan Brown: “He played a very good game. He just has to get smarter in certain areas of the game. The offensive fouls. At some point, it’s a little bit like our team drawing the charge tonight. You didn’t see that in the first five or six games, we adjusted, we became a better team because guys made those plays. Sometimes in and around the basket, it’s not hard turn, it’s having a little bit of a feel the guy is going to try to flop, take a charge on me, so I’m just going to turn softly and shoot a jump hook. Game experience helps that. We need him to get a little bit smarter in certain areas, and if he does, I think his game can really take off.”
On Christmas break: “By NCAA rules we have to give them three days. They’re going to have a break from me. You’ve got to realize, these guys have got to get tested every morning at 730, just not having to get up early, I think is a victory for them at this point. I wish every one of them could go home for Christmas, I think we all kind of need a break, certainly they do. The way college basketball is right now, a lot of us are playing important conference games right at the beginning of the new year and at the end of December, we’re no different. We play Colorado obviously on the 28th, so, pretty quick turnaround, hopefully the break refreshes them. And then we have a chance to practice a couple days and get ready for, I guess 19 Pac-12 games. We’ve never played 20, so it’s going to be quite a challenge.
On if the team can get together over the holidays: “We’re obviously going to really look after them as best we can. But, I mean, in Pima County, unless you have different rules, there’s only so much any of us can do right now, right. Small gatherings and trying to follow the COVID protocols. We encourage our players to do that. When we were on our last road trip we had no meetings. We had boxed lunches and everybody ate a pregame meal in their own room. We had two busses. We had the N95 mask on at all times on the bus, plane. We’re really just trying to protect our players and follow you know Dr. Paul and in those orders. We’re lucky, Justin Kokoskie and everybody here at Arizona has put us in a good position. That’s why this break is hard. I’m preaching to the choir you guys have the same rules we do.”