After missing 17 of his previous 18 three-pointers, and going scoreless for the first time this season in the ugly loss to UCLA, the writing was on the wall that Dylan Smith’s spot in the starting lineup was in peril.
Arizona Wildcats coach Sean Miller hinted that a change might be necessary to help the fifth-year senior relax and rediscover his groove, but he ultimately chose to keep Smith on the court for the start of Thursday night’s game at Cal.
Sticking with the veteran proved to be the right move, though it took a little while for that to manifest itself.
Smith had all 14 of his points in the second half, hitting four consecutive 3-pointers, as Arizona’s offense woke up over the final 20 minutes en route to a 68-52 win over the Golden Bears in Berkeley, Calif.
Zeke Nnaji had 21 points on 8-of-13 shooting, with 15 coming after halftime, while Nico Mannion added 10 points with five assists as Arizona (17-7, 7-4 Pac-12) moved into a four-way tie for first place in the loss column with ASU, Colorado and Oregon.
The Wildcats shot 48.1 percent, their best rate since Dec. 11, making 14 of 28 shots in the second half including 5 of 9 from 3 after missing 18 of 19 from the perimeter over the previous 40 minutes. Cal (10-14, 4-7) shot 38.2 percent, and while it outrebounded Arizona 37-32 it didn’t score a second-chance basket until the 2:32 mark of the second half.
By that point Arizona had built a 62-45 lead after hitting three triples in a 53-second span, two by Smith and the third by Max Hazzard.
Arizona led 27-20 at halftime but were up only 33-32 with 14 minutes to go after going more than four minutes without a field goal. But then the Wildcats went on a 12-0 run, with seven points scored inside or at the line by Nnaji with a Smith 3-pointer sandwiched in there, to lead 45-32 with 10:17 left.
The opening 20 minutes saw Arizona hold Cal to 32 percent shooting, using an 8-0 run to take the lead for good with 12:32 remaining as the Golden Bears went more than six minutes without scoring.
The two most notable occurrences during that first half were the return of Chase Jeter, who played for the first time since Jan. 30 and only the second time in the last eight games, and the end of Jemarl Baker Jr.’s turnover-less streak at 151 minutes after he threw a bad outlet pass with 5:33 left before halftime.
Arizona can complete its second straight Pac-12 road sweep Saturday at Stanford, which fell 74-69 to ASU on Thursday for its sixth setback in the last seven games. The Wildcats have won 19 straight over the Cardinal, their last loss coming in 2009.