And what a difference playing with emotion and purpose makes for a team.
No. 6 Arizona didn’t have the first but did have plenty of the latter in what equaled a Saturday afternoon stroll in a 74-50 rout of Southern California at McKale Center.
Then again, Arizona coach Sean Miller wants it to be clear that the Wildcats’ occasional slow starts, as they had Thursday in a disappointing loss to UCLA, are only occasional.
“The reality of our team (is) that in 19 games, I think we’ve been leading at the first media timeout 14 times,” Miller said. “When you get down like we did against UCLA, it starts to become that we’re unfairly judged (with people asking) why does that happen?”
Arizona didn’t have that problem Saturday. It jumped out to an 18-4 lead and then a 31-9 advantage before cruising the rest of the way. UA is now 17-2 overall and 5-2 in the Pac-12. USC is 8-13 overall and 3-5 in conference play.
With UCLA losing on Saturday afternoon to Arizona State, the Sun Devils and Wildcats are tied and just a half-game back of the Bruins. Oregon leads the conference at 7-0.
And although there are plenty of games to be played, it’s as though the Wildcats have had to apologize for being 17-2 overall and tied for second in the heavy-at-the-top conference race.
“We’re 17-2 and happy where we are right now,” said UA freshman center Kaleb Tarczewski. “We’re a great team but obviously have a lot to improve on. But that comes with time.”
Part of Saturday’s postgame press conference was focused on explaining away the tough 84-73 loss to UCLA. Miller said he watched the game six times and saw that his team missed five point-blank shots and got behind and, well, just couldn’t make up the ground, getting down 21-5 while looking lethargic.
“When you go 0 for 5 in five minutes and playing in a game of that magnitude against a really good team and talented players, the rest of the game feels funny,” Miller said. “If we would have missed those same five today, you would have seen a very similar beginning. That was the silver lining of UCLA.
“We’ve moved forward,” Miller said.
More like fast forward. Arizona took control early en route to its most decisive Pac-12 victory of the year and its most decisive victory of any kind since beating Northern Arizona 93-50 in late November.
“Preparation is key,” said Wildcats freshman forward Brandon Ashley, who had 11 points and seven rebounds. “If you’re prepared, you’re going to do well. Emotion also plays a huge factor on whether you’re focused or not.”
Miller said Arizona will leave the victory against USC with a good look at the “big picture.”
“I feel we leave this game feeling good about ourselves,” Miller said. ” Defense was a key.”
USC shot just 28 percent from the floor and never truly looked into it after falling behind big in the opening minutes.
“We were ready,” Miller said of the team’s defense.
Added Tarczewski: “We knew after UCLA that we wanted to attack, and I think we did that. We had a rough (game against UCLA), but our momentum helped us throughout the whole game.”
It helped that the Wildcats blocked out everything “that was on the outside and focusing on what we need to do,” Tarczewski said.
It was about working to get back to where they needed to be as a team and in the conference race.
“Believe me, there is nobody in our locker room that felt very good after Thursday,” Miller said. “We disappointed a lot of fans … you want to leave that game with a win. And we didn’t. Our response (was) to get back and try to be as good as we could (against) USC.”
Arizona was. So much so that seldom used reserves Angelo Chol, a sophomore forward, and Gabe York, a freshman guard, found playing time, each playing eight minutes. Chol hadn’t played in three of the last four games; York hadn’t played in the last seven. Chol had one point and two rebounds; York had seven points.
“We’ve talked to Gabe and Angelo the last couple of weeks regarding opportunities,” Miller said. “We have foul trouble sometimes. We aren’t a perfect basketball team. We’re always trying to get better.
“You watch Gabe shoot the ball and you say to yourself, ‘Gabe can step in there and make a difference.’ I think the way that he’s earned his opportunity is by doing what he does so well, which is working hard in practice and (having) a great attitude. We have a group of guys who believe in each other.
“When you lose a game like we did to UCLA, it tests our togetherness, because believe me, there’s a lot of people that would like to pull you apart. For us to stay together and have the performance we had (against USC) makes us all feel good.”