TUCSON, Ariz. — This will tell almost everything about Arizona’s game against California on Sunday: Its final three shots didn’t have a chance, with two of them air balls.
Anything else? Seventh-ranked Arizona couldn’t stop Allen Crabbe, the best offensive player in the Pac-12, and it had no answer for Cal’s zone defense.
The result was Arizona losing for the first time in two weeks and for only the third time this season, a 77-69 defeat that leaves the Wildcats 20-3 overall.
Arizona’s luster faded faster than a Sonoran Desert tan in early February.
“They scored more points per possession than any single team that has played us this year,” Arizona coach Sean Miller said, putting the number at 1.1 to 0.94. “Some of that has to do with us breaking down. But we had no answer for those guys.”
Why not switch to a zone? Well, because Arizona would have been out of its comfort zone had it gone to a zone. It’s primarily a man-to-man team. It’ll live and die — mostly — by that. Miller said California’s 30-for-51 offensive performance was “astonishing.”
“We’re 20-2 (going in) playing the way we play,” Miller said. “That’s something moving forward when we find ourselves in the situation that we have to look at.”
There might come a time that happens. Until then, Arizona will have to lament that it had a chance to stay atop the conference standings with a win. Instead, it is tied with Oregon and UCLA for first place at 8-3.
And it’ll have to come to the realization that being in the top 10 doesn’t make you bulletproof. In fact, it makes you vulnerable. This week alone, five of the top seven teams lost to an unranked team.
Arizona joined the not-so-illustrious list on Sunday.
“It happens,” said UA’s Solomon Hill, who had 13 points. “It’s college basketball. Teams are going to give you their best shot. … You have to come out and match the intensity of the other teams. You have to be ready for every team’s best hit, best punch. That’s the respect that you have when you’re a top five or top 10 team. You have to be able to take every team’s best punch and punch them back.”
Arizona was punch drunk. And, this was hardly a dose of low Cal, a team that has been inconsistent as any team yet brilliant at times.
Figure that California beat then-No. 12 Oregon last week and then lost to Arizona State on Thursday.
Miller mentioned many times teams like California (14-9, 6-5) enter games with “nothing to lose and everything to gain.”
“The responsibility for us is that we have to be ready,” Miller said.
Arizona wasn’t. Or surely just wasn’t good enough on Sunday.
But with a player like Allen Crabbe, the conference’s top scorer at 19.3 points per game, anything is possible for California. And Crabbe had a career-high 31 points, with teammate Justin Cobbs adding another 21. They went into the game as the highest-scoring duo in the conference, averaging 33.6 points per game. The duo blew that out of the Arizona desert Sunday.
“I don’t know how to explain this feeling … it’s amazing,” said Crabbe. “To come in and play a No. 7-ranked team in front of a sold-out crowd and upset them out of nowhere is something. Arizona is the only team I haven’t beaten in the Pac-12 and to do it here in their house is a great feeling. I can’t think of any other moment in my college memory that felt like this.”
Miller called Crabbe’s performance great after reeling off the numbers: 12 field goals, four from the 3-point line, seven rebounds and five assists. It was the best performance against the Wildcats all season.
“It wasn’t even close how he dominated the game,” Miller said. “He’s truly a great player and showed everybody how special he is. We had no answer for him. And Justin Cobb, although not on par with Allen’s, came close. Their performance was phenomenal. Every big shot they needed to make, they made the shot.”
And Arizona, a team that has lived on the edge for a lot of the wins this season, couldn’t muster enough of a comeback late for the win, although it was able to get within two points twice (2:48 and 2:02) in the waning moments.
Like in most of its games, Arizona did rally. But this time, it was different. Arizona had a halftime lead of 38-33 after being ahead for most of the first half.
Then came California’s second-half start (déjà vu for UA in terms of bad starts to halves), when the Bears outscored the Wildcats 16-2. Miller said UA took some bad shots and his team “had that deer-in-the-headlights look.”
“You just can’t rally against something like that,” Hill said. “We made runs at it, but we got down too late.”
Miller talked about Arizona getting “knocked on its heels,” saying some of the problems were “self-inflicted.”
It also didn’t help that UA seemed out of place and out of sync against California’s 2-3 zone and its varying forms. Although it’s not a shock, California coach Mike Montgomery has been successful at bringing his teams into McKale Center through the years and beating the Cats. He did it often while the longtime coach for Stanford.
“The zone is huge for us; we haven’t played it a lot this year,” Montgomery said. “We knew that Arizona had some great athletes, but they didn’t execute great. The key for us was that we score every time and that allowed us to get back in the zone. … We haven’t been very good at it this season. I’m sure Sean was frustrated with the ball movement.”
That’s pretty accurate.
Miller said his team did prepare for the possibility of California playing a zone, but still, “it caught us a little off-guard.” UA shot just 39.3 percent from the floor.
All in all, the Wildcats were simply off the mark.