The Arizona Wildcats overcame an eight-point second half deficit to beat Eastern Washington 70-67 on Saturday to improve to 2-0 on the season.
Our full recap can be found here, and here’s the video and transcript of UA head coach Sean Miller’s postgame press conference.
On his overall takeaway from the game: “We were very fortunate to win. I thought it was a win that we earned. I don’t think they caved in or gave it to us in any way shape or form. They were the team that I described. They’re the team that obviously when you’re returning the Big Sky preseason player of the year, Kim Aiken, who is a very tough matchup for a frontcourt player. He’s an all-conference player. They depend so much on the 3-point shot. They’re constantly putting pressure on your defense and for a team like ours, it took us a while to adjust. One thing that set us up for a very subpar first half on defense was in the first eight minutes, although we had a lead, we broke down. They just missed some open looks, but those same open looks as we continued to break down, they made us pay. And when you give up 8 for 16 from 3 at halftime, that’s a tall order and they were also scoring from 2. But the first four minutes of the second half, I don’t believe they scored a point. They were 7 for 28 from the field in the second half and 2 for 15 from 3. I thought our defense was much, much better. Were we perfect? No, we still had some breakdowns. But I thought we wore them down a little bit and our defense in the second half was a big reason we won the game.”
On Azuolas Tubelis, who had 13 points and 9 rebounds: “He took a big step forward today. He was more of the player that he’s going to be. In fairness to our freshmen, I’ve been through it so I know I don’t have to keep repeating myself, but this freshman class they have to learn through fire right now. Azuolas was much more confident, much more sure of him in today’s game against Eastern Washington then he was in our season opener. And I think that will continue as we move forward. But he’s a big reason that we won. I thought he was one of our team’s best players.”
More on Tubelis: “He’s a lot like Zeke Nnaji and Deandre Ayton in that he has like this uncanny touch from about 15 to 17 feet—those tough baseline jump shots, elbow jumpers just inside the 3-point line that sometimes you’re like, ‘I don’t know if that’s a good shot.’ That is a good shot for him. And I think his range will continue to grow and increase as he gets older and practices more. And most importantly, and I saw it with Lauri Markkanen, he’s starting to learn the physicality around the basket. He is more sure of himself, he pursued the ball with two hands. A couple of times of he got fouled he was very close to finishing and he helped us on the offensive glass more. But he’s getting more accustomed to the difference of style, but he played very good tonight. I don’t think we would have won the ballgame if he didn’t take the step forward that he did take.”
On Ira Lee returning to the lineup: “We also benefited quite a bit from getting Ira Lee back, and having him not only with us in today’s game, but in practices leading up to the game. Ira’s physicality, rebounding, experience in a game like this early on, we really used him to our advantage and he contributed in a big way. Jordan Brown and Christian Koloko both had tough games, they were in foul trouble. And I think that’s the good news for us—to be able to win against a team like Eastern Washington with those two guys playing the way they did and being in foul trouble. We can really take some good value out of that.”
More on Ira and the defense: “With Ira Lee, we’re a better team. We were really able to utilize Ira’s athleticism and quickness to help us switch and take away the 3-point shot. When you have to switch as much as we did in that game, it puts a lot of pressure on drives, a lot of pressure on communication, and some of the breakdowns that we had I wish we were better at it, but we failed. Two guys went with the ball. We had a couple breakdowns where we switched when we weren’t supposed to. And as we sub and as they sub, the game changes. So it’s all about experience right now, and the more experience we get the better overall group we will be.”
On Christian Koloko’s struggles: “He’s going to keep getting better. Christian, although he’s a sophomore, he’s a very inexperienced player. He’s a very hard worker and a talented kid. Every time that he plays a game and learns sometimes through failure, sometimes through success, he’ll get better. And we need him to be better he knows that.”
On Arizona going small down the stretch: “Terrell Brown, I look and he has three assists and one turnover. So I think now he’s 10 assists in two games with three turnovers. It’s something that he does well and it frees James (Akinjo) up to kind of attack the basket off the ball some. We did go small at the end. I thought that helped us defend the 3-point shot on defense, and it maybe allowed us to drive the ball. Most of our baskets down the stretch were shots right at the rim and again that’s what our team has to learn. We shot some tough, off-the-dribble pull up 2s in the first half. Even a couple that we made. I mean, we’re not going to win shooting those types of shots. We want drives and post ups. We want to attack so we get fouled and we want to create wide open one-two step 3-point shots. But until we play a couple games, you’re not going to be able to learn that and I think that today’s game is a way for us to learn about a lot of things, some of which we didn’t do well. But to be able to win and you guys know how college basketball works, a team like that is going to win quite a few games and they’re a very dangerous, organized, well-coached group.”
On if not having a normal McKale Center crowd mattered: “Well, yes I mean, you lose your homecourt advantage to a large extent. But even with our great crowd, it still comes from within. The five players that are out there have to have to do it, right? Our guys dug deep. I mean, we’ve worked hard. I think I’ve been pretty consistent in describing our team in that our guys have really sacrificed and they’re working hard, they’re practicing hard, we’re coaching them hard. That doesn’t mean that we’re good or doesn’t mean we’re gonna beat Eastern Washington, but as long as our collective attitude stays the same, we’ll be a steadily improving group. And a big reason why I say that is very few teams that are playing right now are more inexperienced together than Arizona. You feel that with everything that we do, and my hope is that as the weeks of December march on that we’re more sure of ourselves. Some of it is we learn more about our players as well. We’re very much a work in progress.”
On if the rotation will expand now that Arizona has three games over the next week: “No, I think nine guys is where we’re at. I could see that some guys like Ben Mathurin, he’ll continue to get more opportunities as he’s more sure of himself. Ditto for Azuolas. And there might be a few guys that get less opportunity. But right now that’s the group. Look, I just hope that all nine are available. I mean, we could get to Monday and not have all nine available, so we’re trying to keep our players safe and healthy. We’re trying to be smart, trying to practice hard, and our guys have a huge week academically. Most of them have final papers and exams. We’re finishing up the first semester so we’re really engaged with our players right now on a lot of levels and I know they’re excited to play another game on Monday. The last thing they want to do is string together four or five practices right now. We’ve practiced enough. We need game experience right now.”
On the status of Tibet Görener and Tautvilas Tubelis: “They’re both available and they’re both practicing hard and getting better.”