LAS VEGAS—What a difference a few days makes.
After an embarrassing home loss to last-place Washington to end the regular season, the Arizona Wildcats could have easily just called it a season and mailed in their Pac-12 Tournament performance. Instead, they played like a team with something to prove, not just to their opponent but to everyone who’d questioned them all season long.
Fifth-seeded Arizona picked about No. 12 Washington’s zone from the outset, leading for all but about four minutes in a 77-70 win Wednesday afternoon in the first round of the Pac-12 tourney at T-Mobile Arena.
The Wildcats (21-11) move on to face No. 4 USC (22-9) in the quarterfinals on Thursday at 2:30 p.m. PT.
Arizona shot only shot 39.7 percent but hit nine 3-pointers and assisted on 18 of its 23 baskets. Dylan Smith had a career-high six assists to go with 14 points as six different Wildcats had at least two dimes.
“I think the big thing for us was using ball fakes,” said Nico Mannion, who had only two assists but scored 14 on 4-of-8 shooting including 2 of 5 from outside.
Arizona turned the ball over 13 times but only three came in the second half. It also buckled down on Washington’s Isaiah Stewart, who after running wild in the first 20 minutes was shut down as the Wildcats got he and fellow explosive scorer Jaden McDaniels into foul trouble.
The Wildcats led by double digits for most of the second half, and even when the Huskies (15-17) inevitably made a run to get back into it the requisite UA collapse didn’t happen. At least not completely.
Washington pared down a 15-point deficit to as little as five but Arizona made all six free throws over the final 43.2 seconds to stop the rally.
Josh Green had 19 points—12 in the first half—while going 3 of 4 from 3-point range, adding four rebounds, three assists, two steals and a block.
“This might have been his overall best game,” Arizona coach Sean Miller said of Green, who had only 8 points against Washington in the 69-63 home loss last Saturday.
Stewart had 29 points and 12 rebounds for Washington, scoring 18 in the first half and finishing 9 of 11 from the field. The rest of the Huskies were 14 of 47 as the team was 3 of 23 from 3 and shot 39.7 overall.
“Our defense has quietly grown this season,” Miller said.
Arizona led 35-30 at halftime, despite not making a basket over the final 6:30, and quickly built the lead to double digits. Another 6-0 run, thanks to 3s by Smith and Green, made it 49-34 with 14:14 left.
Washington didn’t make its first field goal of the second half until the 13:27 mark, missing its first six shots and turning it over four times (after giving the ball away 12 times in the first half).
Zeke Nnaji drew Stewart’s fourth foul with 11:07 left, sending him to the bench not long after, then McDaniels got his fourth with 6:10 to go.
Washington cut it to 71-65 with 1:14 left after Zeke Nnaji fouled Stewart—this coming after Nnaji passed on a drive against Stewart in the paint, instead passing to Jemarl Baker Jr., who airballed a floater—and Marcus Tsohonis made 1 of 2 from the line with 58.5 seconds left to make it 71-66.
Arizona responded by sinking all six free throws in the last minute, four by Smith and two by Mannion.
The Wildcats were 22 of 29 from the line, 14 of 18 in the second half.
Arizona committed 10 first-half turnovers, the same as it did last time against the Huskies, but instead of a 15-point deficit it led by five as Washington couldn’t capitalize on most of those miscues. The Wildcats were almost exclusively a jump-shooting team in the opening 20 minutes, their first 16 attempts coming outside the paint, but they hit eight of those including four 3-pointers.