Cats find their defense, game in all-around win
MAR 09, 2013 6:25p ET
In its 73-58 win over in-state rival Arizona State in front of a crowd of 14,545 at McKale Center on Saturday, Arizona (24-6 overall and 12-6 in the Pac-12 Conference) looked like the team that raced to a 14-0 start and won 16 of its first 17 games.
It being Senior Day and the regular-season finale may have contributed to the Wildcats' motivation to show that they still have some shelf life left as March Madness begins. Also of interest: earning a regular-season sweep of the rival Sun Devils and bringing an end to the team's struggles of late, including two straight losses and three straight not-so-great performances.
“We had a lot to play for; nobody wants to lose on (Senior Day),” said UA senior Solomon Hill, who had 12 points, four rebounds and four assists. “We had our crowd behind us, and with a crowd like that, your chances of losing are almost zero to none.”
Those are pretty good odds.
With the win, Arizona also guaranteed itself a first-round bye in the Pac-12, finishing in a three-way tie for second in the standings but clinching the fourth seed in the tournament. UA will face the winner of the game between fifth-seeded Colorado and 12th-seeded Oregon State.
Arizona appeared in midseason form Saturday, with everything working -- save for the continued troubles of senior point guard Mark Lyons, who went 2 for 10 from the floor with no assists and three turnovers.
But UA was able to overcome that with strong rebounding (a 35-23 advantage) as well as five more steals (10-5) than ASU and five fewer turnovers (17-12). The biggest thing, however, was Arizona finding a couple aspects of its game that had been missing in action for more than a month.
First and foremost was the defense, something the Wildcats know they must maintain to have any hope of making a run over the next couple of weeks (and beyond). It was, at the least, dogged and determined against ASU after several lackluster efforts of late.
Its absence had perplexed UA coach Sean Miller to no end. So this week, UA went at it in practice “harder” and “longer” than usual to try to get it back. And Miller said he found no “pushback” to that end, in part because the team knows it needs some sort of
breakthrough to get back to what it used to be: a consistent winner.
Miller called Saturday’s defense “locked in.”
"We’re just a much better team when we are active and playing hard and together on defense,” Miller said. “I wasn’t trying to find anything (in the tough practices), because I knew it was there. We had gotten off the path with our defense.”
Which leads to Arizona’s other notable re-connection: the one with Nick Johnson.
Johnson, an X-factor who brings energy and excitement, hadn’t been the same since suffering flu-like symptoms in late January (seemingly a lifetime ago). He'd had little impact in the interim, scoring in double figures just twice in nine games since. On Saturday, he had a team-leading 17 points to go along with four rebounds, three assists and three steals -- all while playing lockdown defense on ASU guards Jahii Carson, Jonathan Gilling and Evan Gordon.
"It was good to have him back today,” said UA senior Kevin Parrom, who had 13 points and seven rebounds. “He’s one of our best defenders, if not the best defender. I think he needs to continue that if we hope to go deep into the Pac-12 tournament and NCAA tournament.
"It’s good to have him back. And hopefully he will stay here. I want to get to the Final Four.”
Miller said Johnson was probably the best player on the court – at both ends. Gilling, a 3-point sharpshooter averaging just under 10 points a game coming in, had just three points (1 for 4 from the field) with Johnson pestering him for most of the day.
“That’s the Nick that has played with us for just about the entire season,” Miller said. “If he is not energized defensively or playing with confidence on offense, we are not nearly as good of a team. It’s not just his responsibility, (but) it’s everyone’s. But today he
was a big reason (for the success).
“He had a real good week of practice, like all of our guys. He came out had fun and played hard. He was himself, and that’s when he can be the best player he can be.”
It’s debatable whether it was his fast-break dunk (something that seemed like an every-game occurrence a couple of months ago), which made it 44-28 to start the half, that put Arizona over the top or if it was his 3-pointer that ended a big ASU run and made it 53-45 with 10:13 left that did the job.
Either way, it was Johnson getting it done.
“I just saw an open shot and took it,” Johnson said of the 3-pointer. And of the dunk, “that’s always something to get me going a bit and hyped up. And that’s good.”
Hill said it was likely the dunk.
"When we get Nick going like that, it gives us an opportunity to give us some fast-break points,” said Hill. “That’s when Nick is at his best.”
NOTES: Longtime Arizona fan Joe Cavaleri, who for 34 years attended games and cheered on the team as the “Ooh Aah Man”, officially retired after the game against ASU. He made his final appearance with 7:46 left in the game, getting a standing ovation for his last cheer. Cavaleri, 61, is known for stripping off layers of clothing at midcourt while leading fans in cheers. He was honored with a ceremony at halftime.