At the end of a rim-shakin’ first half, when it was almost advisable for Cal’s players to wear safety goggles, Mike Montgomery stomped his foot and glared at referee Mike Reed.
Reed stood his ground and glared back.
If looks could kill, Monty wouldn’t be alive to celebrate his 67th birthday today.
Reed’s body language spoke loudly. “C’mon, man, you’re down 15, Arizona is using your defense as a layup line, and you want to blame it on the refs?”
Arizona had five dunks at half, seven overall, and if you’re from California, it must’ve felt like the Big Quake.
There will be no happy birthday for Monty and the Bears. Arizona won 87-59 in a redemptive, muscle-flexing performance that wasn’t so much about getting back at Cal as it was an exhibition of how the Wildcats have healed and moved on since losing Brandon Ashley.
“They were solid and a little angry having lost to us,” said Montgomery. “They’re making shots now that they weren’t making at our place.”
The mathematics from the 26 days between Arizona’s loss at Haas Pavilion and Wednesday’s victory at McKale Center went far beyond seven dunks and the 28-point differential.
At Cal, Arizona shot a season-low 32.3 percent. On Wednesday, it shot 50.8 percent, and it might’ve been closer to 60.8 had not the Wildcats relaxed for a bit.
One thing remained constant: Arizona is pitiless as a defensive entity. Cal spent much of the game groping for an open shot, any open shot.
“We called plays and guys forgot them,” said Bears guard Justin Cobbs.
Or maybe there was no place to run those plays.
“We’re an outstanding defensive team,” said UA coach Sean Miller. “If you look at our numbers and judge them across the country, you can make an argument that we’re one of the best defensive teams in the country.”
Arizona’s defense is old but reassuring news. The developing story is that Miller has reinvented Arizona’s offense, scoring 80 points in consecutive games (against good teams, too) for the first time since poleaxing Fairleigh Dickinson and Rhode Island before Thanksgiving.
Let’s see a show of hands — how many thought T. J. McConnell would be the trigger to Arizona’s offensive makeover?
Including the loss at Cal, when Ashley was injured, McConnell has averaged 10.4 points and 10.6 shots per game. Before Ashley was hurt, McConnell averaged six points and six shots.
He was money again on Wednesday, with 13 points, outscoring every Bear who made the trip.
If he’s not the best point guard in the Pac-12 right now, who is?
Even sainted Steve Kerr noticed. After Wednesday’s game, Kerr sent this Twitter message: “McConnell doesn’t get enough attention nationally. His skill, competitiveness and spirit ignites all the talent around him at Arizona.”
In victories over Utah, Colorado and Cal, McConnell had 33 points, 22 assists and one turnover. If he keeps that up, he may someday be the Pac-12 Player of the Week. (The sarcasm is intentional.)
“After (losing at ASU) I kinda took it personally,” said McConnell, who had an uncommon six turnovers in Tempe. “That’s really bad for a point guard. I kinda took it upon myself to make better decisions and take care of the ball. (Miller) kinda told me just to settle down.”
McConnell did everything last night but throw down a thunder dunk. His teammates, who now have a school-record 128 for the season, took care of that for him.
“He’s shooting more, and he’s shooting good shots,” said Miller. “He’s learned we need him to score more.”
The calendar will flip to March before Arizona plays again, and even though the most notable activities of February were the UA’s lone setbacks, against Cal and ASU, those are just numbers for the media guide. What really mattered in February was that Arizona got whole again with minimal damage.
Now comes the madness.
Believe it or not, ESPN’s Joe Lunardi held a press conference on Wednesday. That is almost absurd, but the Q-&-A session itself summed up the hyperbole that now will accompany Arizona and every other team with a winning record for the next three weeks.
Lunardi was asked:
What is the magic number for Nebraska?
Is Iowa sliding?
Was Clemson’s loss to Wake Forest a death knell?
Is it going to hurt the SEC because it is 8-40 against ranked teams?
Miller won’t have to deal with much foolishness; his team re-established itself with such force that about the only questions that remain are (a) on what day will Arizona snip down the nets to celebrate its 12th Pac-12 championship, and (b) will it be a No. 1 seed or a No. 2 seed.
In the last days of February, those are happy questions.
Miller said beating the Bears “makes us feel good about where we’re at.”
Get the scissors ready.