Arizona’s offensive numbers were pretty good Wednesday against Washington – 47 percent field-goal shooting, 40 percent from three-point range and 23 trips to the free throw line – but coach Sean Miller was just as impressed with the Wildcats' defense and rebounding.
If not more.
UA’s defense had been shaky in the previous three games and Washington was the Pac-12's best offensive rebounding team entering the game.
But UA's defense held Washington to 30.8-percent shooting and provided transition opportunities that helped snap Arizona out of its offensive stagnation.
“Through the first 8 or 10 minutes we were very tentative on offense,” Miller said. “We didn’t cut, we didn’t pass, we passed up some shots and we just didn’t look right. Then from there we got a couple of stops and played the best 28-30 minutes we have all season long.
“It all starts for us on the defensive end. We have to be a team that’s hard to score against. We’re vulnerable if we aren’t because that’s our strength.”
Arizona also outrebounded the Huskies 43-37, even though Washington entered the game with the best rebounding margin (plus-5.3) in Pac-12 games. Also the league’s best offensive rebounding team, UW did have 18 offensive boards, to UA’s 10, but scored only one more second-chance point than the Wildcats.
Kaleb Tarczewski had eight rebounds while five others had three or more.
“We outrebounded them by six and it shows you how physical we are,” Miller said. “Angelo Chol is getting better, Kaleb is getting better, Grant (Jerrett) and Brandon (Ashley) are both able to give us great minutes. That size up from and the depth is something we have to take advantage of.”
Miller also said this about UA’s defense, which held Washington to 30.8 percent shooting and just 1-for-11 three point shooting:
“I know most of the world has forgotten we beat Miami and Florida, but we haven’t and if both are No. 1 seeds, the reason we were able to beat teams of that caliber is our defense, not our offense,” Miller said. “For us down the stretch, if we’re going to be good in March or finish this thing off like we want to, the defense has to be in place from start to finish. It’s not fun to do. It’s hard work but we’re capable of doing that game in and game out.”
Of the difference between tonight’s defense and the “pathetic” defense in recent games that he referred to earlier this week, Miller said:
“We were more engaged, gave great effort,” he said. “We were more the same, very organized, tough minded.”
With some maintenance, that is. Miller said he took Kevin Parrom out of the game after he broke down defensively three times early in the game.
“Four guys can play hard on defense but if one guy runs into a screen, loses his man, is irresponsible … all of a sudden the game changes back. He started to go down that line and he came out and that’s kind of what we have to do moving forward. We have to always give great effort.
“It’s not about changing. It’s about doing what we do better. A couple of plays we had two or three guys trying to block shots. It’s that hard play that has to be a part of our identity.”
When Washington’s Andrew Andrews turned the ball over with 16 minutes left, and the Huskies were down 44-29, Solomon Hill cracked the biggest smile I’ve seen on him this season.
But while Miller said all the tense games of late “can beat you down” he said the Wildcats didn't necessarily approach Wednesday’s game or any other with an idea of having more fun.
“I think our guys have approached every game pretty consistently,” Miller said. “It’s just that if you’re the hunted, there’s a lot of pressure on you constantly. That pressure can really wear on a player, on a team. There’s a fine line between working and also enjoying what you’re doing and we try to balance it as much as possible and I think we’re in a good place right now for the stretch run.”
Even after Nick Johnson recovered from that virus that dragged him down on Feb. 2 at Washington State, his shot wasn’t the same. In the four games after WSU plus the first half Wednesday, Johnson was a combined 7 for 26 from the field.
Then he made 5 of 7 shots in the second half Wednesday against Washington, getting going with two easy baskets and later hitting a three-pointer that gave UA a 46-29 lead.
Johnson’s offense is “very important,” Miller said. “We’ve had kind of a steady 1-2-3 punch of scoring and if any one of those three aren’t in double figures, it puts pressure on us. I thought Nick getting out in transition got his confidence going.
“He’s played well. He defends passes and is really engaged in games. He’s missed some shots and some free throws and it’s started to bother him but hopefully this second half can get him back on track with scoring. We want him to score.”
Miller stopped playing Gabe York after the WSU game but this time, he says York will be in the rotaition for good. York put in eight minutes, hitting 1 of 2 three pointers.
“We just need a guy to come in the game and be responsible, make a shot,” Miller said. “It was great feeling. I’m sure for everyone to see someone come off the bench and knock that shot down, that’s something Gabe can give us. He’s improved on defense. We tried it a few weeks ago at Washington and it was a tough situation to put him in, but from this point on I think you can count on him being a part of things. What I hope is he gets more and more comfortable as we go.”
A few other Miller comments on individuals:
On Tarczewski (10 points, eight rebounds): “Kaleb is getting better. Really started to feel that way a couple of weeks back, and at Utah, he made some really good offensive plays and he did it again tonight.
“He’s rebounding well, he’s moving well. One of the reasons Aziz (N’Diaye of Washington) fouled out was he was on our team. We were able to get him the ball in scoring position and a number of times (N'Diaye) committed a foul against Kaleb.”
On Mark Lyons (14 points while igniting the Wildcats early, three assists, two turnovers):
“He has to stay true to who he is and when he’s like that our team at is best. He has a confidence about him. At times we need players to get their own shots; Mark and Solomon more than anyone else have that ability. And then for them to get their own shots, the others kind of played off him – Brandon, Kaleb. Tonight, Kevin didn’t really have it in terms of scoring but it was great for us to be able to win like we did without him scoring.”
On Hill (19 points, six rebounds): “You can’t say enough good things about Solomon. He’s there every game. He’s one of our conference’s elite players and at his position he’s proven he’s one of the best that’s playing."
Miller began his postgame address by thanking the crowd for showing up on what was (at least for natives) a day of rough weather. A sellout crowd of 14,545 was announced, and there appeared to be only a few hundred no-shows.
“I think I heard the word ‘blizzard,’ ” Miller said. “Being from Pittsburgh, I walked outside, looked up and expected to see what I consider a blizzard. And I didn’t really sense a blizzard. As a matter of fact, it would be a nice day.
“But when snow’s coming down, the rain and the cold, I know it would be easy for 25 percent of our crowd to say `We’ll just watch it on television.’ For us to have the type of crowd we had says it all about the great tradition we have, the great fans we have and why it’s so special to coach at Arizona. My heart and thanks goes out to everybody who was here.”
Washington coach Lorenzo Romar, meanwhile, said the Huskies have done a "good job at not finger-pointing," while they have lost eight of their last 10. But he wasn't happy with the way the Huskies started the second half.
"We were playing the No. 12 team in the country on their home court," Romar said. "In that situation, you can't afford to come out in the second half and not compete at a high level. It hasn't been our identity."
Here's the official box score.
Neither the weather nor the result changed much for WSU on Thursday when it traveled to Tempe and lost to ASU. The Cougars will play UA at 1 p.m. on Saturday.
Today's Pac-12 games:
Cal at Oregon, 7 p.m. (ESPNU)
Utah at Colorado, 8 p.m. (Pac-12 Networks)
Stanford at OSU, 9 p.m. (ESPNU)