Online Extra: Arizona keeps winning close games
By JOHN MARSHALL
AP Basketball Writer
TUCSON, Ariz. — Seven points in 56 seconds. A blocked shot from out of nowhere. A waved off 3-pointer, another that danced around the rim like a pachinko ball before falling away.
The fourth-ranked Arizona Wildcats are fortunate to still be undefeated and they know it.
“We’ve been lucky for a couple of weeks now,” Arizona swingman Kevin Parrom said. “The luck is going to run out soon. We have to play better.”
Arizona (14-0, 2-0) is off to its best start since winning the first 16 games in 1931-32 and is still among the top 5 teams in the country.
The Wildcats are big, athletic, deep, love to play defense and have one of the best coaches in the country, the kind of team that can make a deep run into March, maybe even into April.
But there’s no doubting Arizona has gotten some good breaks to keep its perfect start rolling.
On Dec. 15, the Wildcats beat Florida in a matchup of top-10 teams by overcoming a six-point deficit in the final 56 seconds. Arizona pulled out the 1-point victory when senior Mark Lyons scored on a heavily contested layup with 7 seconds left.
The Wildcats pulled out another 1-point win over a Top 25 opponent at the Diamond Head Classic in Hawaii when sophomore guard Nick Johnson swooped in from the weak side and swatted away what looked to be an uncontested layup by San Diego State guard Chase Tapley.
Arizona grabbed a pair of hanging-by-a-thread victories last week.
The first, against Colorado on Jan. 3, came after a banked-in 3-pointer by the Buffaloes’ Sabatino Chen at the end of regulation was waved off by the officials after a replay. The Wildcats dominated after the disputed ruling — some replays showed Chen got the shot off — and pulled away in overtime for a nine-point win.
Two day later, Arizona struggled defensively in the second half against Utah and had to watch as a potential tying 3-pointer by Utes guard Jarred DuBois hit the rim, bounced off the top of the backboard and hit the rim again before falling harmlessly to the floor.
Any one of those plays goes the other way and the Wildcats are no longer undefeated.
Thing is, all those plays went in Arizona’s favor and they are undefeated, which few teams can say at this point in the season.
“If the objective is to win by the biggest margin we possibly can, then we’re failing in that area,” Arizona coach Sean Miller said. “But I know that we’re 14-0 and at 14-0 you have to be in a number of close games, and we’ve been on the positive end of them. I hope we can continue to do that.”
The Wildcats will need to clean a few things up to keep it up.
Arizona has struggled at times to get the ball into the low post and its freshmen big men have, as freshmen often tend to do, had some breakdowns defensively and disappeared on offense at times.
The Wildcats have struggled with turnovers all season and occasionally go into shooting funks from the perimeter. They’ve also struggled at defending the 3-point line and sometimes foul opponents or let them score late in the shot clock after playing good defense for 30 seconds.
Miller has pared down his rotation over the past month or so and has often gone with his veterans over the freshmen down the stretch of tight games. As the inconsistencies have continued to crop up, Miller has turned more and more to the players who will play the way he wants them to.
“If you’re tentative, then you can be tentative on the bench,” Miller said. “We have a couple of guys right now who have to step up and defend, play hard, be responsible. Do the things that we recruited them to do, do the things we talk about. We’re not going to keep making the same mistakes.”
It doesn’t figure to get any easier for the Wildcats as they dive into the bulk of the Pac-12 season.
Arizona heads to the Northwest this week to face Oregon and Oregon State, somewhat surprising teams that have combined for 22 victories. After that, the Wildcats face rival Arizona State, which has made solid improvement this season with the addition of point guard Jahii Carson, and seven more weeks of games in a conference that includes athletic teams like Colorado, UCLA and Washington.
“We have a bull’s eye on our back. We have to understand that,” Parrom said. “Games are going to be tough from here on out. We’re (No. 4) in the nation, undefeated and we have to play harder. Nobody is giving us anything easy.”
At least the Wildcats are pulling out these close victories.
A year ago, one of the criticisms about Miller’s team was that it couldn’t pull out the close victories. That young team missed the NCAA tournament after reaching the regional final the season before.
This season, Arizona has a solid core of veteran players to lean on, including Parrom, Johnson, Jordin Mayes and senior forward Solomon Hill. The Wildcats also added Lyons, a graduate transfer from Xavier who has become their go-to guy in crunch time, including his shot against Florida and two big free throws against Utah.
“At the end of the game, we’re good,” Parrom said.
They’ve proven that. They’re hoping not to have to keep doing it.
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