It might be remembered as Arizona’s great trip to the Northwest. It should be.
Eighth-ranked Arizona left Tucson on Wednesday two games behind Pac-12 leader Oregon, but after a road sweep of Washington and Washington State, the Wildcats find themselves tied for the conference lead at 7-2.
Arizona, now 19-2, defeated Washington State 79-65 on Saturday night in Pullman to put itself at the top of the standings heading into the second half of the conference season. The sweep of the Washington schools was the first for UA since 2006 and the first Pac-12 sweep for the Wildcats since a year ago this week.
“If you’re going to compete for a regular-season conference championship, you’re going to have to get a sweep or maybe even two,” Arizona coach Sean Miller said on his postgame radio show.
The Wildcats did that and got some help; a thank-you note might be in order for California, which knocked off Oregon on Saturday to give Arizona a share of the lead after Stanford upset Oregon on Thursday.
The Cats can also thank the dead-eye shooting of senior Solomon Hill, who made the 3-point line his personal happy place Saturday night. He had six treys at halftime, good for a career high, and while he went scoreless in the second half, his sixth 3-pointer was a huge shot — and a long one. Hill hit a three-quarters-court shot at the first-half buzzer to give UA a 40-26 lead and all the momentum heading into the break. He finished with 18 points, all coming from beyond the arc.
“The cushion we had in the first half is because we have a good leader and a great player,” Miller said of Hill. “If he’s not one of the better players in the country, I don’t know anything about college basketball or anything about the Pac-12 or Solomon. He’s done it all the way from the first game to this game.”
Miller said Hill has “established a winning way for the rest of our team.”
All, however, was not perfect for the Cats, who lost senior Kevin Parrom with 10:42 left in the first half after he was ejected for a flagrant foul for apparently elbowing the Cougars’ DaVonte Lacy in the face. It’s not yet clear if he’ll be suspended. Arizona next faces Stanford in a rare Wednesday night game.
“If in fact he committed the foul, he embarrassed himself, our basketball program and his family,” Miller told reporters after the game. “Kevin is a senior, and he knows better.”
The story of the night, however, was Hill in the first half and Arizona’s ability to keep the pressure on in the second half, although Miller said he was disappointed with his team’s defense late in the game. Washington State shot 52 percent in the second half but could only cut Arizona’s double-digit lead to 10 in the late stages of the game.
Lacy and Brock Motum each scored 15 points to lead Washington State (11-11, 2-7 Pac-12), and D.J. Shelton added 13 points and 10 rebounds.
Miller said most of his team’s defensive problems were related to foul trouble and effort. Freshman forward Brandon Ashley fouled out, and senior point guard Mark Lyons had four fouls.
“I thought we had some real effort issues,” Miller said. “We struggled to guard them. When guys had more fouls, we became even more tentative. But we made big plays on the offensive end.”
They did so even without a fully healthy Nick Johnson, who was said to have flu-like symptoms and an upset stomach. The sophomore guard finished with six points.
Johnson’s health and UA’s comfortable lead for most of the final 30 minutes allowed reserve guards Jordin Mayes (21 minutes) and Gabe York (six minutes) to earn some extra playing time. Reserve big man Angelo Chol also played seven minutes.
“When they came in, they really helped us get the win,” Miller said.
Arizona shot 47 percent from the floor and went 11 of 30 from 3-point range, finishing with its second most makes and attempts from beyond the arc all season.
“We won because our offense was that much better than Washington State’s,” Miller said.
Four of the Wildcats’ five starters scored in double figures.
Lyons, who had some key baskets late, finished with a game-high 20 points, and along with Hill’s 18, Ashley and freshman center Kaleb Tarczewski each added 10. It was Tarczewski’s third straight game with 10 points.
“His physical presence is a huge thing,” Miller said. “Kaleb is making strides, as is Brandon. To have both of those guys in double figures means the world. It’s just a matter of time before (freshman) Grant (Jerrett) continues to establish himself.”
Miller added that, at this point in the season, the freshmen are essentially veterans, having played 21 games and taken part in nearly 70 practices at Arizona.
“All that experience will start to benefit us,” Miller said. “The biggest reason is they are the greatest kids and work very hard. It’s a matter of time before they continue to get better.”
For now, though, Arizona has its senior leader and a spot atop the Pac-12 standings.