Not pretty, but Wildcats will take big road win

It wasn’t pretty Thursday night for eighth-ranked Arizona. But beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and a victory on the road — ever so tough in college basketball — is always beautiful.

Despite the game being largely a calamity, Arizona was able to escape Alaska Airlines Arena with a 57-53 victory over Washington, the Wildcats’ first win over the Huskies (12-9 overall) in Seattle since 2008. It was Sean Miller’s first win in the Emerald
City in his four-year tenure at Arizona.

Old habits seemingly die hard, as UA was as unimpressive early as it had been in many previous losses at Washington. In fact, Miller said it was the Wildcats’ worst first half of basketball all season.

But in the end, they found “a way to win.”

“For us to come into this building and win with the way we played on offense in the first half (was fortunate),” Miller said on his postgame radio show. “I thought the resiliency and togetherness and guys really stepping up to make big plays (in the second half) is a
great sign for our future.

“We did not play well. But sometimes I believe that your greatest lesson is when you fall flat on your face. A bunch of players on the team felt that. I hope it’s a sign of things to come.”

It was a true road test for the Cats, and they passed, albeit barely. Arizona next heads to Washington State on Saturday to try to pull off a rare road sweep. The Wildcats haven’t swept a Pac-12 series since almost exactly a year ago, when they went to the Bay Area and beat Stanford and Cal.

Arizona is now 6-2 overall in conference and 18-2 overall, making this the first time UA has achieved 18 wins through 20 games since 2003. The Cats are also 8-1 away from McKale Center this season (including neutral courts) and 5-1 on opponents’ home courts.

It took a while Thursday night, though. It was a game that set Pac-12 basketball back decades, as each team performed similarly poorly. In a first-team-to-60-wins type of game, neither team made it to 60.

The 110 combined points were the fewest in the series since 1984, when the Huskies won 56-51.

Still, Arizona came away victorious and stayed within striking distance of Pac-12 leader Oregon, which has a one-game lead over UA with one game left in the conference’s first half.

The Wildcats can point to a few reasons for that. Sophomore Nick Johnson had a team-high 15 points, five in the final two minutes. UA’s defense, which has risen to the occasion of late, was just good enough once again. And freshman 7-footer Kaleb Tarczewski kept the Cats close in the first half with 10 points.

“Kaleb Tarczewski deserves a lot of credit,” Miller said. “He had 10 points and seven rebounds against USC (last Saturday), and he followed it up with 10 points and eight rebounds. His physical size made it hard for Washington’s players to score. He was a big reason why we won the game.”

If it was Tarczewski in the first half, it was Johnson in the second. Johnson also helped limit Washington’s C.J. Wilcox to 11 points, eight below his season average, and a 4-for-16 performance from the field.

“He was the best player on the court,” Miller said of Johnson. “He didn’t play particularly well in the first half and he had a few teammates on the same side as him, but … he (was able to overcome that) because he works hard every day. He’s in unbelievable condition. It’s his talent level and his will that’s making him an exceptional defender.”

With Johnson taking over at both ends of the court, Arizona outscored Washington 34-25 in the second half, going on an 11-5 run in the final minutes after Wilcox hit the Huskies’ first 3-pointer of the night to put the Wildcats behind 48-46 with 4:34 left.

“We had a long talk at halftime about trying to do things better as a team,” Miller said. “I still don’t think we were what we should be or can be, but we played the second half with five turnovers. That’s a big difference. We started to execute better.”

As was the case in last week’s ugly loss to UCLA, Arizona fell behind early, digging itself a 16-5 hole. But this time, the Wildcats regrouped and got back into it, even taking the lead at one point (21-20) before going into the half down 28-23.

“That was the worst first half on offense we’ve had all season long,” Miller said. “We’re fighting ourselves. We didn’t play collectively as a team. … Individual play is not going to work.”

Arizona had 12 turnovers, shot just 30 percent from the floor and made eight baskets in the first half.

“Everything on the stat sheet (was) just pathetic,” Miller said, “except that we were only down by five. We played extremely hard.”

They needed to. At one point late in the game, the Wildcats still had more turnovers (16) than made shots (15). On the road. Against a Washington team that entered above .500 in Pac-12 play.

But they won. And for Miller and the Cats, that’s all that matters.