Arizona returns to winning ways in rout of ASU
TUCSON, Ariz. — Whatever questions exist regarding No. 8 Arizona, the Wildcats passed the test against rival Arizona State on Sunday night in McKale Center.
Other than a few minutes of a lull in the offense where it scored just six points in a five-minute stretch (that made no difference , Arizona’s offense was as crisp as Sean Miller’s suit and tie in a 73-49 victory to being Pac-12 play.
It started, well, at the start where the Wildcats attacked via the 3-pointer, hitting four of six to begin the game. Taking them, let along hitting them, is uncharacteristic for Arizona.
"I worry when we shoot a lot 3s early because it can be fool’s gold," Arizona coach Sean Miller said. "But I thought the ones we took presented themselves … although we started off by shooting 3s, we pretty much took what they gave us."
If anything, Arizona’s 3-point efficiency was economical, hitting 5 of 10 for 13 percent better than it entered the game.
Those numbers pale in comparison to the Wildcats’ free-throw shooting. Arizona has looked, um, average in hitting the freebies at 67 percent through the non-conference season. Against ASU, it hit 16 of 19, or 17 percent better than its season average.
"We’re going to get better from the line," Miller said. "I don’t expect it to all of a sudden to become, ‘Wow, you don’t miss.’ But tonight’s performance from the line is more about who we are than who we’ve been. Moving forward I hope it’s one of many things we keep improving."
Sunday was the perfect start and was perhaps helped by Arizona’s loss in what seemed an eternity ago. In fact, Brandon Ashley said losing to UNLV12 days earlier "was a good thing" in getting Arizona to "refocus and realize that, hey, even though we are a talented team, we’re not invincible."
The Wildcats could go no wrong Sunday. Arizona’s attacking defense held ASU to 24 fewer points than its average (and 32 percent shooting) and created 22 turnovers. Everything seemed back to normal for Arizona.
"We are going to be better when we harass you and are active and pick up our pressure," Miller said. "We didn’t have that pressure in our loss. You always want to learn from that experience. What makes us good (and play) at our best is be(ing) aggressive on the perimeter."
It helps to get off to good starts just as it did with the 3s. By time, the Sun Devils knew what hit them they were down double digits at 19-8 and en route to trying to come back from a 20-point margin for most of the second half.
"I don’t know if we shot the ball real well from 3," Miller said in a self-evaluation of the game. "I think we won because we were efficient on long stretches of offense … and our defense. Did they get 50 (points)? Forty-nine, that’s an excellent defensive performance by us."
And more like how Arizona plays or has played this season. In fact, Arizona’s mantra all season has been to win every four-minute war.
It did that most of the night, going to its bench often.
"It felt good to be a team and to be playing that way," said Hollis-Jefferson. "That’s how you want to play basketball and being a winning team. It’s a great feeling inside. We loved it."
The sold-out, red-out crowd did, too, as it witnessed Arizona move to 13-1 overall and 1-0 in the Pac-12. ASU fell to 8-6 and 0-1.
Miller mixed it up a bit to get the team’s juices flowing, deciding to start sophomore Rondae Hollis-Jefferson instead of freshman Stanley Johnson and sophomore Elliott Pitts over junior Gabe York.
"Starting and coming off the bench is all the same, you have to come in with a winner’s mentality," said Hollis-Jefferson, who was one of three Arizona players with 13 points. He added eight rebounds. "Being the leader, you have to have that ‘go’ mindset to always bring that energy no matter if you are starting of coming off the bench."
Miller said it wasn’t a case of York or Johnson doing anything wrong, but it was more of a chance to "change it up."
"You learn the personality of your team (by doing that)," Miller said. "We might have to move the lineup around some. That might bring out the best in our overall team."
When asked how he thought Johnson handled his first non-start in perhaps forever. Miller joked (matter of factly), "I didn’t ask his permission."
It didn’t seem to bother Johnson, who had 13 points and seven rebounds.
"He played an excellent game," Miller said. "At halftime, he may have been our best player. He didn’t play, maybe, as well as he should have in the second half. But he will learn from it. We need him to continue to grow."