Leading by four with less than four minutes to go at UCLA, the Arizona Wildcats were in prime position to pick up a huge road victory despite missing one of their best players and with their head coach in the locker room following an ejection.
We all know how this story ended. Kind of like many others this season when the score was close down the stretch.
“We’re always two or three plays away from winning,” senior guard Dylan Smith said Tuesday. “It’s just all about learning, learning from our mistakes, and putting it together in March and hopefully winning some games.”
Maybe if the Wildcats had a few more plays things would be different.
Arizona is 3-7 in games decided by six or fewer points, and all four losses in Pac-12 play have come despite the Wildcats leading in the final five minutes of regulation.
“We’ve probably been in four, five, six of those that haven’t bounced our way, maybe one has,” Arizona coach Sean Miller said. “We’re certainly capable of beating anybody on our schedule, that’s for sure.”
Last week our Ryan Kelapire did a deep dive into those late-game situations, noting how poorly Arizona was in taking care of the ball and rebounding on the defensive end. The turnover issue reared its ugly head again at UCLA, with the Wildcats committing seven in the final 8:20 including on three straight possessions in the last 99 seconds during which a 62-60 edge became a 65-62 deficit.
But just as noticeable during that most recent collapse was the pace at which Arizona operated when trying to preserve the lead. Or, rather, a lack of pace.
The Wildcats held the ball for 25 or more seconds on their last three possessions with the lead at UCLA. That game had a very slow tempo, with only 126 total possessions, but the average possession length was 19.05 seconds.
The overtime home loss to Oregon on Feb. 22 was even slower, with 134 possessions over 45 minutes, an average of 20.15 seconds. Arizona’s last four possessions with the lead in regulation averaged 28.5 seconds, and that included a 45-second one that included a second-chance opportunity (but ended with a shot clock violation).
Contrast that to the season as a whole, where Arizona’s 16.6 average possession length ranks 64th in the country, per KenPom.com, and the Wildcats’ average possession lasts 17.4 seconds in Pac-12 play to rank fourth in the league.
It’s just simple math,” Miller said when asked about slowing things down with a late lead. “Shooting quick is insane. You play with the lead you want to be a smart team, that’s what the best programs in college basketball have done for 100 years. That’s not why we lose at the end.”
Smith said the decision to run clock comes down to “feel for the game,” that it’s not a hard and fast rule but rather a matter of what opportunities present themselves.
“We just try to do what we feel is best with the flow of the game,” Smith said. “If we feel like we can get a quick, good shot or a quick great shot we’re all for it, but if it’s not we just try to pull it back out, run some clock, play the right way.”