HANSEN

Greg Hansen: February fears evaporate in Salt Lake

2013-03-24T00:00:00Z 2013-03-24T21:48:05Z Greg Hansen: February fears evaporate in Salt LakeGreg Hansen Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
March 24, 2013 12:00 am  • 

SALT LAKE CITY

You could play and replay the Arizona-Belmont and Arizona-Harvard basketball games 100 times over the next few months, same lineups, same coaches, same game plans, and three things would almost certainly not repeat:

Harvard would not open the game 0 for 13 from the field.

Belmont would not open the game 1 for 11 from the field.

Arizona would not have double-figure leads, 17-5 and 14-4, before the 12-minute media timeout.

That might happen to a good team once in the NCAA tournament over a decade or two, but almost never in 48 hours, in the same gym.

Incredibly, Arizona never had to worry for 80 minutes. Not a genuine, this-is-going-to-do-some-damage-to-my-ticker torment. In a tournament based on doubt and distress, the Wildcats didn't get their uniforms dirty.

Arizona coach Sean Miller, who is as subtle as a nosebleed, refers to every four-minute segment as a "war."

"In the first war, those first four minutes, we like to tell the other team that we're here," said UA center Kaleb Tarczewski.

In routing Belmont 81-64 and Harvard 74-51, Arizona wasn't just a haunting, late-night knock at the door. It was a bunch of bad guys crawling through the windows and breaking down the doors.

"They pounced on us from the beginning," said Harvard guard Christian Webster. "I think it took us by surprise: how hard they played, how physical they were; their length and size and speed. It was just an uphill battle."

The Crimson exhibited the same type of performance anxiety that gripped Belmont earlier in the week. Once they gathered themselves and got their blood pressure under control, Arizona was up 20. The game was over.

It wasn't an accident or just a couple of good days in the gym against inferior opponents, either.

"Why were we 14-0 and one of the elite teams in college basketball two months ago?" asked UA assistant coach Book Richardson. "Because we were locked in, dialed in on defense. We've got that back."

Harvard shot its worst percentage of the season, .276. It's feared three-point ace, Laurent Rivard, missed his first five three-point attempts. Whatever strategy Miller and his staff designed, it was implemented and carried out perfectly.

"On Thursday, New Mexico guarded Rivard with a 6-10 power forward," said UA assistant coach James Whitford. "He easily got loose and had some open shots. But we put Nick Johnson, who is 6-2 and very athletic on Rivard. For 40 minutes, we didn't let those guys get off. That got their attention."

If defense wins championships, or at least gets a team to the Sweet 16, it was Arizona's defense that paid for its berth at Staples Center on Thursday.

Harvard's Wesley Saunders, who is a 54 percent shooter averaging 16.5 points a game, missed 10 of his 11 shots Saturday. He rarely went anywhere without an Arizona shoulder a few inches from his nose.

Saunders had difficulty finishing around the bucket because Arizona's size and length were something he had not played against in the Ivy League, or any time this season.

"Film didn't give Arizona as much credit as they deserved," said Harvard guard Siyani Chambers, an echo of the remarks made by Belmont players on Thursday. "They were tremendous on defense; their rotations, their size. They played great defense."

Why is this happening now and why didn't Arizona play like this in February, when it took its foot from the accelerator and lost costly, uninspiring games to Cal and USC?

Whitford said the Wildcats got tired collectively, but after losing at USC, renewed their vows. They decided, as a unit, to come together, practice harder, concentrate longer and commit to playing the type of defense that had the Wildcats ranked No. 3 in early January.

"We felt great about the way we played in the Pac-12 tournament," said Whitford. "Some things didn't go our way, but in our eyes, we were the better team than UCLA. We've been unselfish. We've practiced hard. We're dialed in defensively."

What's more, in Salt Lake as in Las Vegas a week ago, the Wildcats no longer coast. Early in the second half Saturday, Harvard made 7 of 8 shots but Arizona matched it, actually increasing its lead by a point.

Beating Belmont and Harvard is one thing. Going to Staples Center and winning two more games will be like graduating from beginner's math to calculus.

But at least, given their performance in Salt Lake City, the Wildcats understand the basics.

"Guys don't want to go home," said Richardson, their motivational assistant coach. "Their legacy is still to be determined."

In the happy UA locker room Saturday, someone posted a partial NCAA bracket, enlarged it, and wrote "FOUR TEAM TOURNAMENT."

It had Arizona-Belmont on top. Belmont's name had been crossed out.

It had Arizona-Harvard on bottom. Someone drew a marker through Harvard's name.

Another four-team tournament begins Thursday in Los Angeles. Whomever the opponent will be, Miller obviously likes his team's chances.

"We came into this tournament cornered, hungry and ready to do something," he said.

For three days in Salt Lake City, the Wildcats cleaned their plates.

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.



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