Azuolas Tubelis made a layup as time expired to give the Arizona Wildcats an 84-82 win over Arizona State on Thursday night in Tempe. The win moves Arizona to 11-3 and 5-3 in Pac-12 play and marks the program’s first road victory over the Sun Devils since 2018.
Our game recap can be found here. Here’s what coach Sean Miller had to say about Arizona’s dramatic rivalry victory.
On Azuolas Tubelis’ maturity to put behind a tough first half and respond the way he did: “Azuolas was not himself in the first half. I think some of that you have to credit ASU, they’re an athletic, quick full court team. The game is a little bit different playing them because the tempo of the game is really up, and it might have caught Azuolas by surprise, even though we’ve tried to prepare him for what was to come. Not until you get in the game do you really get a good sense. He put it behind them in the first half, he was much better in the second half. He actually got off to an even slower start at the beginning of the second half. And I think really what you’re talking about is maybe from about the 15 minute mark of the second half to the end of the game, where he really became himself. Obviously the game winning offensive rebound or pass, whatever it was, that was a huge play.”
On Dalen Terry, who had a career-high 13 points: “Dalen was the unsung hero of tonight’s game. Three for three from the three 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. But a big reason we won the game was just his overall play, but the fact that he was able to become a double figure scorer in tonight’s game.”
On the team’s resiliency to fight back from a late seven-point deficit: “We’re a team that really works hard on a daily basis. 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. And obviously, one, just a great, great game. Our defense is not as good as our offense. We’re hard at work to make it better. It has to get better, but 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. I mean, ASU had their way with us, especially in the second half. And hopefully we can be better when we play them on Monday.”
On the team’s energy level despite no fans in Tempe: “It’s a rivalry game. The players care a lot. Each team cares a lot. Both coaching staffs recognize that it means a lot to the history of both of our programs. So we want to give maximum effort, and when you win it’s a thrilling feeling, you lose it’s a terrible feeling. That’s what we have to guard against because unlike other games in this series, the next game we play is ASU. It’s going to be on us pretty quick on Monday, and I think there’s a number of things that we have to be better at when we play them on Monday.”
On what Miller wanted for the final possession: “Well, first of all you want a shot. If he can get a second shot that’s even better. But to have the ball in James (Akinjo’s) hands… we didn’t have a timeout but even if we did that’s not the time to call it. 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.”
On whether Arizona gave ASU too many free throw opportunities: “We fouled in both halves too much. It’s plagued us. 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 ‘you know what I’m 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. You forget that in this game a year ago, we had I think 10 guys that played. Eight of them are not here, so we had a lot of first timers in tonight’s game, a lot of guys who weren’t even a part of our program a year ago. That’s part of what we have to continue to grow and get better at. We’re very inexperienced, and again every time we play a game, we have an opportunity to get better and improve, but I thought tonight was a hard fought battle. If we would have lost, we would have lost in a very tough, tough game.”
What winning a tough game on the road does for the team’s psyche: “Well, it’s a tough place. Any road game in the Pac-12, and I know we are in Covid so fans aren’t here, or at least I know they have parents but it’s difficult. You see it the other night, Colorado at Washington, I don’t know what happened in these games. You saw it recently when USC went up and played Oregon State. It’s college basketball. That’s what makes it such a great sport that the home court versus away, it’s just not easy to win on the road. Arizona at ASU, it’s a challenge. It really is, so yeah we’re thrilled to win it. We’ve lost a couple games here exactly how we won tonight. Over time, that has a way of evening out.”
On Miller’s message to the team after the game: “Make sure that we’re still focused on ASU and learning from tonight’s game and whatever adjustments that we need to make being prepared to make those. Our guys are probably a little beat up. I’m sure theirs are as well. Giving them an opportunity to rest and recover and yet, prepare. We’re thrilled. It’s the fun part of coaching when you can win a game like that. It’s not very fun when you don’t, but we’re gonna enjoy our car ride home to Tucson, and hopefully we’ll get ready to play them again. They’re a tough team to play against. The team that we played tonight was their full allotment or as close to it as they’ve had. In fairness, ASU, they’ve really dealt with Covid, injuries, and a lot of situations that aren’t going to allow them to be successful. But, now that they have Remy Martin back and the big guy (Jalen) Graham, and just kind of look at their team, they have the ability to really play well. So, we beat a good team and hopefully we’ll be able to keep it going.”
On what Christian Koloko brings to the team: “Christian is a very important player for us. He’s our best interior defender. He has the ability to block shots, change the game around the rim. He takes his defense very seriously. We’ll have to take a look at his fouls. We don’t want him always in foul trouble, and there’s probably a couple plays where he has to just continue to grow, be smarter on the court, because he’s such a young player that game experience is really important for his development. But he made a couple of key plays. A couple spurts where our team played well, I thought he was right at the forefront of those plays.”
On how Miller feels about playing a team back to back: “Well I don’t know if anybody loves it. I’m sure ASU feels like we do. You want to move on, maybe play our game at a later date, but we’re all part of something that’s bigger than just our own programs, and I think it’s a decision that was made by the Pac-12 office that makes a lot of sense, especially in ASU’s case. To give them that last week to recapture some games that they’ve lost would be very, very big for them. We want the most teams in our conference to get into postseason play, and anything that we can do in terms of scheduling or cooperating to make that happen, obviously we’ll do it. Obviously we’re also playing every game to win ourselves, but that’s kind of how it is, and I know we’re not the only rivalry that’s doing it. There’s quite a few in the Pac-12 if not everybody that I think is trying to free up that last week.”
On whether back-to-back games gives the loser of the first matchup an advantage the next time around: “Whoever’s the most ready in the next game has the advantage for sure, but it’s too hard to call right now. Just coming off this game and being able to have a couple of good days. Tomorrow will be off for us, so guys get a chance to rest, recover. We’ve had some really hard practices leading up to this game as well. I think number one is just allowing our players to be as fresh as they can be, because this is a hard fought game for sure and as we look towards next week, playing three games in a week isn’t easy in the Pac-12. We’ve already done it once when we played Colorado, at Washington, at Washington State. And we’re about ready to do it again. We’re gonna play ASU at home and then Stanford at home and Cal at home so at least the next three are at home, but three games in one week will be challenging for our team.”