For fourth-ranked Arizona, Saturday night was about keeping pace with the Pac-12 leaders. And UA did just that, defeating host Oregon State 80-70 in Corvallis.
It wasn’t a dominant performance from the Wildcats, but when you’re on the road, a win is a win, and Arizona needed a win to leave the Oregon Trail with a split and stay close to conference leader UCLA. The Bruins have started the conference season 4-0 and are riding a nine-game winning streak overall.
“We will take it,” coach Sean Miller said on his postgame radio show after Arizona improved to 15-1 overall and 3-1 in the Pac-12.
The victory also helped UA stay right behind in-state rival Arizona State, which is 3-0 in the conference going into Sunday night’s game at Oregon, also 3-0 in the Pac-12.
The Wildcats play the resurgent Sun Devils next Saturday afternoon in Tempe.
“No one has to remind us who that game is against,” Miller said. “We know they are much improved. They are doing a great job so far this year. We have to have a really good week of practice leading into that game.”
First, though, was the matter of whether/how the Cats would bounce back from its first loss of the season Thursday night in Eugene. They did so with balance and better defense.
“As a team, we didn’t let that (loss) affect us,” guard Mark Lyons told reporters afterward. “One loss isn’t going to hurt us — unless it’s in March.”
The Wildcats did what they had to defensively, keeping the Beavers from hitting 3-pointers and keeping them from making a run. UA started to pull away from Oregon State when it was 27-26 with just more than six minutes left in the first half, closing the half on a 16-9 run to take a 43-35 halftime lead.
In all, the Wildcats held the Beavers to 5-for-15 shooting from 3-point range. That was a point of concern for Miller after Thursday night’s loss, as he said his team had played poorly on the perimeter for the previous few games.
Conversely, Arizona hit its treys consistently, making 10 of 25.
Going into Saturday’s game, Arizona was being labeled a team more talented than tenacious. Saturday’s performance may not have swayed the masses, but it showed the the Wildcats can play some defense.
“For the most part,” Miller said, “our defense hung in there. There are always things that we will kind of roll our eyes at knowing we can be better. The numbers don’t lie, and at least defensively, it was much better than our first three (conference) games.”
Oregon State shot just 39 percent from the floor. Miller added later that his team’s defense was “further notice that that’s the way we have to do it. We have to make sure we are always ready for it.”
On the offensive end, seniors Lyons and Solomon Hill each had 16 points, Nick Johnson had 14 points and Brandon Ashley had 12 points. And having one of his better games thus far was freshman Grant Jerrett, who finished with eight points and six blocked shots.
With Ashley and Jerrett — both freshmen — stepping up, the Wildcats showed the potential for even more than what they’ve demonstrated through the first 16 games.
“We have an upside to our team because we have a few first-year players in key roles,” Miller said. “Every time our freshmen go through an experience, they will get better and they will learn.
“Tonight was Grant’s most impactful game … six blocks. That’s a very big stat. He had (four) rebounds and two 3-pointers. It shows his versatility. And Brandon was real active.”
And with their help, Arizona was able to get back on track and keep pace.