TUCSON – Southern Mississippi got into a zone. Arizona got into a funk.
And, oh yes, the Wildcats found a way to get out of it, much to their relief.
Deep down, coach Sean Miller might have learned more about his team in Wednesday night’s 63-55 victory than at any other point this season. When things got tight, instead of getting uptight, the Wildcats played with confidence.
Sure, there were some deer-in-the-headlights moments, but that’s to be expected early in the season.
Now, looking forward, it would seem others have a road map to what might stop, or at least slow down, the Wildcats.
Arizona had to figure it out, but eventually it did while hitting 45.2 percent of its shots. It was its second lowest percentage of the season.
“I feel like teams might try it, but we’re a young team right now,” said freshman center Kaleb Tarczewski, who had seven points and seven rebounds. “But we had the senior leadership.”
Miller talked about learning experiences and having to lean on his veterans for guidance. At halftime, there was no big speech, even though UA was down 35-27. He just went to the seniors and made his point: Do you want to lose to Southern Mississippi at McKale Center?
“He wasn’t yelling at us,” Parrom said. “We knew what we had to do – especially the seniors. We were good, and he was fine.”
Not every game will be a no-doubt, double-digit victory. Tuesday was one of those nights, and even the eight-point margin was closer than it indicated.
“It’s kind of weird to say but I’m happy,” said guard Nick Johnson, who had a game-high 23 points. “I know we have the veteran leadership with (all the guys). Our freshmen haven’t been through a close game, but we pulled this one out.
“We know to play in a close game and take good shots. That’s a good thing about it.”
And thus, McKale mayhem was averted. Arizona, now No. 8 in the polls, won its sixth game in six tries — not unexpected given its soft schedule – and Miller said the team “had a good feeling in the locker room” after the game.
“To be 6-0 matters to our team,” Miller said. “You may say, ‘of course it matters.’ But you’d be surprised how sometimes how things don’t go well for you that it’s not about the 6-0, but it’s about you. I like that collective thinking with our team, and some of the guys’ improvement.”
This was the most physical game it has played so far, and Arizona suffered through 27 turnovers. That’s no typo. Not since Jan. 7, 1999, had Arizona given the ball away so frequently.
“Twenty seven turnovers, we’re going to hear (about) it in practice,” Parrom said. “I don’t think since I’ve been here that we had 27 turnovers. Coach is going to get on us for that.”
And yet, the Wildcats survived.
“Their zone threw us off,” said Johnson. “For the first half, I wouldn’t say we weren’t prepared for it, but it was just a different kind of zone. We settled down in the second half.”
The Wildcats appeared confused early on, seemingly trying too hard to get its offense going against the 2-3 zone.
But they found just enough openings in the zone and hit enough shots to get through it. Parrom made a difference. He was so effective that Miller started him in the second half.
“He just has that mentality … against the zone he’s a terrific passer,” Miller said. “He makes people better. He rebounds and is physical. He’s been there. Kevin is not a nervous guy. In a game like that it’s nice to have him out there.”
Parrom played a season-high 30 minutes, 11 more than his average, and finished with 14 points and eight rebounds.
“This game proved how tough we are,” Parrom said. “We have a lot of talented freshman but there will be games like that when we will count on our seniors like myself.”
Indeed. Miller especially liked what he saw for a 10-minute stretch in the second half.
“Kevin Parrom was our best player in the middle of the zone,” he said. We had more movement and had move drives and better shots. The things we talked about at halftime in the way we chose to play in the second half gave us a better shot.”