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What we learned from Arizona’s buzzer-beater win at ASU

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Photo courtesy Arizona Athletics

Azuolas Tubelis made a game-winning layup at the buzzer to lead the Arizona Wildcats to an 84-82 victory over the Arizona State Sun Devils in Tempe.

With the win, the Wildcats improved to 11-3 overall and 5-3 in the Pac-12. The Sun Devils are a disappointing 4-7 and 1-4, respectively.

Our recap can be found here, Sean Miller’s postgame interview can be watched/read here and below are some additional takeaways.

Was it a pass? Was it a shot? Who cares!

After stymieing Remy Martin at the rim with nine seconds left in regulation, Azuolas Tubelis glided down the court and positioned himself underneath the Sun Devils’ basket.

As that happened, UA point guard James Akinjo pushed the ball up the court and pulled up for an off-balance 3-pointer on the wing. Tubelis noticed the shot was going to be well short, so he camped under it, caught it, kept the ball high and placed it in the basket at the buzzer.

Akinjo insists it was a pass, but the statkeepers ruled it as a missed 3-pointer. Most people would probably agree with them. Whatever it was, it got the job done.

“We didn’t have a timeout but even if we did, that’s not the time to call it,” Miller said. “It’s letting a player make a play. We trust James, and if it was a pass, it was one heck of a pass. If it was a shot, it’s still one heck of a pass. But Azuolas, I give him credit for being there and making it. Some guys miss that.”

Tubelis might have earlier in the game. He was struggling to catch anything around the basket. The freshman went scoreless in the first half, missing all four shots he took, and then turned the ball over four times early in the second half. It was the worst he looked all season.

He didn’t let it get to him. He made all four of his second-half field goals, including a left-handed rolling layup to bring Arizona within two with 2:42 left and, of course, the game-winning putback...err...layup.

“It’s a big credit to my teammates,” Tubelis said. “They saw me and I finished it. ... Coach said you need to catch the ball every time, so we did pretty well in the second half. That’s why we won the game.”

Tubelis believes it was the first game-winning shot he has ever made in his basketball career. It couldn’t have come against a better opponent.

“I feel amazing,” he said.

Dalen Terry was the unsung hero

Terry grew up in Tempe but has been a Wildcat fan since he was a kid. He learned at a young age about Phoenix-born Wildcat greats like Richard Jefferson, Mike Bibby and Channing Frye and wanted to be like them.

Proof can be found in this picture that shows an eight-year-old Terry wearing an Arizona practice jersey in his kitchen:

Terry said he caught some some flak when he decided to leave town to play for the Wildcats, and maybe that served as motivation Thursday.

The freshman turned in the best game of his career, with a career-high 13 points and four rebounds in 22 minutes of the bench. Terry, who hasn’t been a great shooter this year, went 3 for 3 from 3-point land after only making five in the first 13 games of the season.

Terry scored five points during Arizona’s late second-half comeback. He drained a spot-up 3 to bring Arizona within 76-72 with 4:22 left. He then buried two free throws with 3:18 left that brought Arizona within four again.

When the game seemed to be slipping away, Terry reeled his team back in. Quite literally.

With 32 seconds left, he restrained Miller from the referees after Tubelis was questionably whistled for an illegal screen. It was a tie game and a technical foul in that situation would have been costly.

“Dalen was the unsung hero of tonight’s game,” Miller said. “Three for three from the 3-point line, Dalen really works at it. I mean, he gives as much effort, working on his game, as any player, especially a freshman, that we’ve had. He’s up early, he’s in the gym early, practices hard every day. A big part of his work ethic is to improve his shooting. I thought he shot good threes, and when he shot the ball, it was the shot we want him to take. A big reason we won the game was just his overall play.”

The defense was a downer

Had Arizona lost this game, the defense would have been to blame. The Sun Devils shot 46 percent from the field and 52 percent from 3. For most of the second half, they were averaging over 1.5 points per possession.

Arizona again had trouble defending off the dribble, giving up 48 points to ASU’s starting backcourt. To make matters worse, the Sun Devils grabbed nine offensive rebounds even though they are usually weak on the glass. That is the second-most Arizona, usually one of the top rebounding teams in the country, has allowed in regulation this season.

And not only did the Wildcats struggle to force and grab misses, they fouled way too much, putting the Sun Devils at the line 29 times. Fortunately for Arizona, they only made 21.

While there are legitimate gripes to be made about the officials, who were lenient in the first half then strict in the second half, fouling has been an issue for Arizona all season.

After Thursday’s win, they now rank 271st in the country in opponent free throw rate. Their defense also fell from 58th in KenPom’s ratings to 65th. In conference play, Arizona has the fifth-worst defense in the Pac-12 and it’s only getting worse.

Thursday was the third time in the last four games that Arizona has posted a defensive efficiency of 110.2 or worse, far above their season rating of 95.2.

However, they did manage to get three straight stops to close out Thursday’s win.

“Sometimes you just have to figure out a way to try to get a win almost in spite of your defense, and that was really the storyline of tonight’s game,” Miller said. “We got to look at what we can do to plug those holes and maybe foul less. Some of our fouls were just young fouls. Inexperience, fouling on an offensive rebound. When ASU has inside position, you have to see it for what it is, and know [you’re] not gonna go for the ball or recognizing they’re in the bonus so I’m really not going to go for the ball. I think we had a foul at three-quarter court once or twice.”

This team is too tight-knit to give up

When things start to look bad, this team continues to fight. It has now followed up those brutal home losses to UCLA and USC with a pair of road wins.

Thursday’s victory was certainly in doubt at times, especially when the Sun Devils pulled ahead by seven with 4:42 left, six with 3:37 left and five with 2:22 left.

But the Wildcats hung in there and finished on a 6-0 run to win it. They don’t have an NCAA Tournament bid to play for, and they are pretty far out of the Pac-12 title race at this point, but they still play for each other.

“This is the closest team I have ever been on,” Akinjo said.

And if you thought that being banned from the postseason would cause them to get complacent, think again.

“We’re a team that really works hard on a daily basis,” Miller said. “We’ve had some really good practices. Sometimes I question myself going home if we’ve gone too long in practice or too hard. Just because the war of attrition. We’re down bodies. But again, I think you want to prepare your team and your team wants to be ready so that when you get down into that final few minutes, that you have more in the tank and I felt like our team really relied on their daily habits, fought through, made some timely field goals, didn’t give in, didn’t give up. Obviously it was just a great, great game.”

Akinjo rises to the competition

When Arizona hosted Colorado in December, Akinjo seemed annoyed when we asked him about CU point guard McKinley Wright IV.

“I know you guys respect him a lot, but we believe in our guards,” Akinjo said.

Akinjo had 22 points and eight assists that night, clearly outplaying Wright, the Pac-12 Preseason Player of the Year.

A few weeks later, Akinjo had 25 points and eight assists against UCLA and Tyger Campbell, another one of the Pac-12’s top guards.

And then going up against Martin on Thursday, Akinjo elevated with a game-high 24 points on 8-of-17 shooting, including a 5 for-9 mark for 3. He drained a corner triple off a screen with 1:46 left that cut Arizona’s deficit to 82-80, one of the biggest moments of the game.

Akinjo came out hot, too, sinking a pair of 3s in the first three minutes to give the Wildcats a 9-3 lead. Martin played pretty well too, especially in the second half, but only finished with 18 points on 4-of-11 shooting.

Advantage, Akinjo.

“I feel like I’m one of the best guards in the conference,” he said. “And I got to step it up, take it to another level and show and prove every time.”

The rematch should be fun

Thanks to the quirkiness of this season, Arizona and ASU will be back at it Monday in Tucson for what should be a compelling rematch.

There was some trash talking between players Thursday and you can bet the Sun Devils will be hungry for revenge after such a close loss. Especially ASU coach Bobby Hurley who thought Martin was fouled on ASU’s last possession and said his team deserved to win.

Miller said Arizona is going to enjoy the bus ride home and take Friday off. Then it’s right back to business.

“It’s going to be on us pretty quick and I think there’s a number of things that we have to be better at,” he said. “I think number one is just allowing our players to be as fresh as they can be because this is a hard fought game. And as we look towards next week, playing three games in a week isn’t easy in the Pac-12.”