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What Sean Miller said about Arizona’s close win over Washington and late-game execution

arizona-wildcats-sean-miller-washington-huskies-postgame-interview-reaction-tubelis-akinjo-defense Photo by John McCoy/Getty Images

It was much closer than expected, but the Arizona Wildcats managed to complete their first Pac-12 weekend home sweep with a 75-74 win over the Washington Huskies on Saturday afternoon at McKale Center.

The win improves Arizona to 17-8 overall and 11-8 in the Pac-12 with one game left, Monday at Oregon.

Our full recap can be found here, while below are coach Sean Miller’s postgame comments:

On if Arizona struggles in late-game situations: “That’s not an accurate statement. I wouldn’t agree with that we are a collision course of making bad decisions, or haven’t been able to win the close calls throughout the year. Straight-line drives at the end of the game, that’s what happened tonight. It was a drive and a great pass. The player has to make the shot, if he didn’t make the shot, you could put today’s game in that same category. You could say ‘you didn’t get it done at the end of the game coach, the play wasn’t a good one, you had Azuolas Tubelis in the left corner, shooting a 3-pointer—by the way, it was a long two to win the game—you have to get a better a better one than that.

“The other part about the end-of-game situations is, a person that doesn’t know the game well focuses on offense. Most of the time, the game is won or lost equally on defense. Against Oregon, one of the things that we didn’t do a good job of is we didn’t stay on our men. (Chris) Duarte took a wide-open uncontested shot, not on a set play but on a broken play, and we overhelped. Against Colorado, when the game was about 55 seconds, a minute and 15 seconds (left) and you have a 3-point lead, you have to really be aware that a three times the game. You give them a two, a 2-point shot you’re still down one, but in that game again we overhelped, we gave them a three and now it’s a tie game instead of Arizona up one.

“I’m excited that Azuolas made the shot, it was a good pass. And I thought we equally defended the last play. They had the last shot of the game, we didn’t, and we defended it. Each season represents plays like tonight, sometimes you make them, sometimes you don’t. Usually the more-experienced team you have, the better overall players you have, the more it seems to go your way. I credit Azuolas, and really James, because the previous offensive play he made a 3-pointer.

“I’m not gonna cave in to the narrative that we didn’t finish games. I mean, look, at USC part of finishing that game is parading to the foul line. Instead of it being a tough game that goes to the wire, you put them away, and James is a big part of that as well. So at the end of games, finishing games, there’s a lot of ways you can do it. For example, at UCLA, there’s not a better example of us not finishing a game properly. A game that was tough at half, tough through the first four minutes of the second half, we really let it get away from us because we just could not stop (them). We didn’t have any fight in us down the stretch of that game. Tonight, it was good to see us be able to break through and leave with a win.”

On James Akinjo: “If we didn’t have him–we’re 17-8—I think we’d 8-17. We might be 5-20. That’s how much he means our team. Today he dominated the game from our perspective. He’s learning how to be a true floor general, but his big heart is just perseverance, his ability both score and distribute, the toughness that he displays. You’ve got to remember he played a 9 pm game on Thursday, our guys walked out of McKale at a quarter after 12 midnight, and they got COVID tested at 630, so they got a good 5 1/2 hours of sleep, no practice. James pretty much played the entire game on Thursday, plays the entire game here today. And at the 38-minute mark, he makes a 3-pointer ease. He is definitely an all-conference player. I don’t think I have to even campaign for him, because the peers, my peers, the coaches in this league, when they start with Arizona, they start with him. And he’s our heart and soul. And he’s had a fantastic season, he really has. I tip my hat to him, too, because he didn’t have a spring or summer. And although he was with us for a few months last season, he didn’t have the traditional year, 9-month build up that can really help a young player like him. A lot of what you see he did really starting from scratch here in September. Today’s game, in some really pivotal moments when maybe his teammates didn’t have the offense of confidence he showed up and showed up really, really big.”

On Azuolas Tubelis: “He made the game winning shot, so we’ll start there. But if you look at the stat sheet, you know, not a lot of freshmen get 16 points and 15 rebounds. If you just really look at his overall play over the last six weeks, like James being an all-Pac-12 player, I think Azuolas is one of the conference’s best freshmen. It’s up to me, and our staff moving forward to put him in a better position on defense. He struggled tonight on defense, as did our entire team, but he’ll get better just through maturity and growth and experience. But he’s also 6-9, 240. And there are just certain teams you play in college, when they have the court spread like Washington did here tonight, we’re asking him to do a lot. And it’s up to us to put him in a better position to be successful on defense, and yet allow him to be I think who he really is on offense. He’s certainly a unique in a very, very good offensive player.”

On Tubelis getting the final shot: “He was where he was supposed to be. We have a lot of offensive sets that put him in the corner. Azuolas is a capable 3-point shooter, he’s not our best, but he’s capable. But he’s also a guy that has a lot of confidence, and being that he’s out beyond 3-point line, he’s still able to run in and get a tip in, a second shot. So that was our thinking there. And I’m glad he made the shot. There’s always positive thoughts and things you can say when the ball goes in. If he missed that shot, you could easily say, you know, ‘hey, another close loss, coach, you guys don’t execute at the end of the game.’ But so much of it is, did the ball go in or not?”

On being able to pull one out despite poor shooting and defense: “There’s a lot of ways to win. We’ve been in some hard fights, we’re not going to get any credit for playing Oregon tough, we didn’t win. We’re not going to get credit for going to Colorado and really overcoming that 19-2 deficit, we didn’t win. At the end of the day, did you or did you not? Today’s category, I would just say we didn’t perform well. Defensively, we were subpar, and I have to give credit, tip my hat to Washington. They came in here with nothing to lose, some house money, guys played free, they drove the ball, they spread the court. They had a couple guys go hot from three. And in 40 minutes in college basketball, especially in conference play, you know anything can happen.”

On Terrell Brown: “In some ways he might have wanted to play well too good tonight. He’s from Seattle. This is his final home game, at least of this season, he’s honored before the game, I think it’s the first time his family has been able to actually see him play live. And I never really saw him relax out there. We really had to overcome, 1 for 11 from the floor, 0 for 6 (from 3). That’s not how he’s been all year.”

On getting Kerr Kriisa back: “Kerr, he had the groin situation. I’ve yet to see a young player not practice four or five days and then all of a sudden show up on game night and be ready to go. You know, in between Kerr and Terrell, they went 2 for 16 from the floor and they went 1 for 10 from 3. That’s also part of the storyline. But I’m thrilled to win, I’m not relieved that we won, I’m more really excited, and I’m happy that Azuolas was able to make that shot.”

On Kriisa’s drawn charge in the final minute: “Kerr, a lot like TJ McConnell, he has great instincts, in terms of drawing charges and making plays like that on defense. That’s why he was in the game. We trusted him a little more. Kerr did a great job on that particular play, but I thought our perimeter players in general had a really hard time defending Washington’s perimeter players.”

On playing mostly turnover free: “In the second half, we had a couple head-scratching types of turnovers, turnovers that we normally don’t have that, the pressure of the game, the pressure of this being the last game, the pressure of losing to a team that is at the bottom of the standings, you know, it starts to build against you. I felt that way for our team in the second half. But at the end of the day to play with 10 or fewer, is really good.”

On the rebounding advantage: “When you get 13 second shots, and they get three, and you get 41 rebounds to their 29, those two statistics are overwhelmingly in our favor.”

On the free throw shooting: “I would say that the last part about today’s game is, we also really went to the free throw line and converted. We went there 24 times, but we converted 21 of them. Free throw shooting, offensive rebounding, defensive rebounding and turnovers, in spite of what I talked about with some shooting and the defense, carried us at least to the finish line today.”

On getting motivated to finish at Oregon: “I think our guys are really excited to go to Oregon, you know. I’m not just giving you that. I mean, we’ve talked to them, I think I got a good feel. I mean, if you’re them, it either ends today, or it ends at Oregon on Monday. I think that they’re excited to play against a really good team, a team that’s beaten us six times in a row, a team that’s beaten us on the last possession of the game, I think, almost really the last three times we played them. We know they’re really good. They’re playing for a lot. The group that we have, I don’t think I have to give them a pep talk. But I will tell you, we have to play a lot better on Monday night than we did here today.”

On the chance of being able to add a 27th game: “I wouldn’t say it’s completely at zero percent, because we have the capability of playing. It’s just, teams don’t have a lot of room to schedule us. They’re either in their conference tournament, their season’s over, they’re at their full allotment of games or, they’ll play us but they want us to play there. I don’t know, especially on the heels of going to Oregon if we want to now fly to another place. There’s a lot that we’re looking at. Is it a possibility? It is, but I don’t think it’s a very probable (one). If one fell in our lap, we would love to play a game, but it doesn’t look good as we’ve investigated the opportunities. And I think the last thing that I want to do is just schedule a game to schedule it, and not have something more to the game than just, you know, hey, let’s play another game and see if we can get another win. I think it has to be the right opponent. Or else, we move to the offseason and look forward to the future.”

On the uncertainty of whether Monday will be the season finale: “That’s kind of how this season’s gone, as you know. I think we talked 7, 10 days ago, I didn’t even know that we were going to play Oregon. No one really shared that. And then once the Pac-12 released the schedule, we kind of found out around that same time. With this last one, I’m not sure when or if we’ll we’ll know.”