TUCSON, Ariz. — Arizona point guard T.J. McConnell hit two shots all night against Oregon — one to start the second half and one in the final minute, a go-ahead 3-pointer that was his team’s last basket of the game.
Everything in between wasn’t all that pretty, but for the Wildcats, the final score looked good enough. Arizona survived a major scare from visiting Oregon on Thursday night to pull out a 67-65 victory at McKale Center.
"Everyone just keeps telling me to shoot," McConnell said. "Nick (Johnson) came up to me and said, ‘You’re going to make the next one.’ When it left my hand, it felt good. I needed that one to go down."
Sitting next to McConnell at the press table, Johnson mouthed, "Thank you."
McConnell finished 2 for 9 from the floor, adding six points and three assists. And despite the relatively unimpressive numbers, Arizona found its hero on this night. As Johnson said, the Wildcats have always had someone step up and hit the big shot this year — with the exception of their last time out, a 60-58 loss to Cal that was Arizona’s first defeat of the season.
"All these questions about our offense, (but) we’re getting good looks," Johnson said.
Once again, after winning 21 consecutive games to begin the season, Arizona’s world was right again, although it wasn’t easy in moving to 22-1 overall and 9-1 in the Pac-12.
Wildcats coach Sean Miller called it "our best victory of the season based on how the game went and what the game means and playing without Brandon (Ashley)."
Arizona was outrebounded for the second time in three games and just the third time this season. It shot just 40 percent and again was abysmal at the free-throw line, going just 19 of 35 for a 54.3 percent mark.
And that wasn’t Miller’s only concern. As the coach entered his press conference after a long delay, he explained that he had split his pants at some point in the game so he "had to go to Plan B."
"There’s probably a picture of it," he said.
"It’s a real tribute to the team we have in that it took a lot of resiliency on our part, a lot of belief and a lot of toughness, because things weren’t going our way," Miller said. "I credit Oregon for a lot of it. No matter how much we (struggle), we are going to get this the most right we can. You can’t go from five months doing something a certain way with a certain group of kids and then, in a 48-hour or three-day window, and all of a sudden magically insert players and still be that good. It’s going to take some time."
And Arizona had to overcome more than just Ashley’s absence in this one. The Wildcats’ most athletic player, freshman phenom Aaron Gordon, continued to struggle with free throws, finishing 2 for 11 while tallying six points and eight rebounds.
So it was up to the guards in this one, and they came through in the "Nick" of time. After McConnell hit his 3-pointer with 1:32 left in the game to give Arizona its first lead of the half, Johnson hit five of six free throws down the stretch to seal the win.
For Oregon, it was the second one to get away in a week after last week’s 70-68 loss to UCLA. The Ducks held the lead for more than 18 minutes of the second half and twice extended the margin to six points. But they imploded in the final minutes with some unnecessarily quick shots and poor decisions, although the Wildcats’ stiffened defense played a part.
"We did a lot of good things," Oregon coach Dana Altman said. "It boiled down to a couple of offensive rebounds and put-backs they got late. We had a bad possession with 4 seconds to go. We’ve got to make better decisions and better plays. We didn’t execute. That’s as much my fault as it is theirs."
Really, the same could be said for Arizona, which struggled to find any cohesiveness without Ashley, an athletic 6-foot-8 forward who can play on the perimeter and/or near the basket.
But freshman Rondae Hollis-Jefferson did his part in stepping into the starting lineup for Ashley, posting his first career double-double with 14 points and 10 rebounds while adding three assists and two blocks.
"He’s a warrior," said McConnell. "I tell him that every day. If you have that warrior mentality, they can’t take that from you. He just goes out there and outworks people. We know we’re going to get that from Rondae every night."
Hollis-Jefferson apparently likes the "warrior" label, referring to it a couple of times in the postgame press conference.
"(Miller) just said to play hard," Hollis-Jefferson said of his role. "I just have to go after it and get more rebounds. I talked to Brandon about that. I said, ‘I’ll try, I’ll try.’ I did that tonight, and it felt good."