Arizona staves off UNLV; ascension to No. 1 likely

TUCSON, Ariz. — Blowout? Check.

Signature game that makes people take notice? Check.

Big-time scare? Check.

The second-ranked Arizona basketball team has experienced all three in a matter of 10 days, but Saturday’s 63-58 gut-check win over visiting UNLV could be the most beneficial for a number of reasons.

Arizona found out that nothing, no matter who you are, will be given. A victory over Duke in last week’s NIT championship showed the Wildcats belonged among the nation’s top teams, but Saturday’s win over a determined UNLV team taught them about the burden of their status, which is likely to be the No. 1 team in the nation when the next polls come out, thanks to Michigan State’s loss to North Carolina earlier in the week.

It’s a spot Arizona coach Sean Miller feels the team — and program — has earned with a 9-0 start. It’s been 10 ½ years and three coaches since the last time Arizona was No. 1.

Whether staying on top is tougher than getting there remains to be seen.

“We’ve been getting everyone’s best shot since the beginning of the season because we’ve been highly ranked,” Miller said. “The reason it’s hard (to stay at the top) is because of the parity … New Mexico State is the next game and the only game that matters.”

A sellout crowd (mostly wearing white) came to witness Saturday’s victory.

“Our guys knew the high stakes of playing against a team like Arizona,” UNLV coach Dave Rice said. “We have a good shot at being very good by the time conference rolls around. We battled, and I’m very encouraged with what I saw.”

Ditto for Miller, whose team showed up on the defensive end in the second half and survived a triangle-and-two defense that might be seen more often. It also survived the slow-down, deliberate pace. Another good thing.

Arizona can thank the leadership and poise of junior guard T.J. McConnell for making it happen. McConnell had a 13-point, seven-rebound and six-assist performance in a game where every basket mattered and every defensive stop was key against a Rebels team that was only 3-3 coming in after losses to Santa Barbara (86-65), Arizona State (86-80) and Illinois (61-59).

“(The win) obviously gives us confidence, but it shows we can’t take a team lightly,” said McConnell. “They are well-coached and played really well. We have to take each game like we are playing Duke.”

UNLV was no Duke, but the Rebels might have played better against the Wildcats than Duke did a week ago. Arizona escaped by holding the Rebels to 28 percent shooting and 16 points in the second half.

The Wildcats scored only 24 after intermission but outscored the Rebels 11-5 in the final 10:30 minutes.

“I felt relief,” McConnell said when asked how he felt when it was finally over, “because I know we all wanted this so bad. We’ve worked so hard to this point, and we will keep working.”

When Arizona looked like it was going to pull away, well, it couldn’t because it couldn’t hit gimme shots. By Miller’s count the team missed at least six (maybe more) “4- to 6-inch shots.”

If this happens in the NCAA tournament … yikes, it’s time to start making plans for spring break. That’s how tenuous college basketball is.

“Over the course of the season you have bad shooting nights and you have those turnover nights, sometimes you have that game where one of your best players can’t make a shot,” Miller said. “We had a lot of that going on. But for us to fight and win, I think is a real tribute to this team.”

Much credit goes to McConnell who initiated Arizona’s late-game surge with a pass to Nick Johnson near the basket for a layup to make it 54-53. The lead see-sawed until McConnell gave Arizona the lead for good at 58-57 with 3:10 left.

“T.J. won’t get the credit he deserves because he wasn’t a high school All-American,” Miller said. “But the way he plays the game and his ability to defend and play offense and to make his teammates better, … I wouldn’t trade him for very many players out there. In many ways he’s the heart and soul of what we do. We saw that in the second half.”

Miller said he recognized his team needed him to score more. Freshman Aaron Gordon scored only four on 2 of 10 shooting, and junior Nick Johnson had five turnovers while scoring 12 points on 4 of 15 shooting.

“T.J. is a great leader of the team and he always brings energy every day,” said sophomore Kaleb Tarczewski, who had a solid game with 12 points and eight rebounds. “He really slows a team down and calms it down and really runs the team like no other point guard I’ve ever played with.

“Kudos to T.J.”

McConnell called it “satisfying” after a few days of hearing about the possibilities of a No. 1 ranking following Michigan State’s loss.

“It’s something like we feel we’ve earned,” said Miller, who last week embraced the idea of being at the top. “We know that being ranked No. 1 doesn’t mean that we won a championship or the season’s now over. I’m not going to play the negative card with that. I think it reflects the quality of our program and the incredible atmosphere we have at McKale.

“To be ranked No. 1 is the greatest compliment that you can have. … All of us can say that we played, coached (and) watched the No. 1 team in the country. Moving forward it’s like winning the NIT championship in New York. It’s something we put on this season’s resume, and something we feel good about. I think the responsibility that comes with it is very obvious.”