With poor shooting, Wildcats shoot themselves in foot
TEMPE, Ariz. — Arizona coach Sean Miller warned just more than a week ago that something like this could happen. Even good teams can’t survive on the high wire for too long.
Arizona picked a fine time to play probably its worst game of the season, with Arizona State having something to do with that and doing just enough of its own to pull off a 69-66 upset of the second-ranked Wildcats in double overtime.
"It was one heck of a game," Miller said. "Someone has to win and someone has to lose. Unfortunately, we’re the loser."
It was the biggest home win ever for ASU (19-6), which had never before beaten a team ranked so highly at Wells Fargo. The victory likely assured the Sun Devils a spot in next month’s NCAA tournament. What it means for Arizona, which had been considered a lock for a No. 1 seed, remains to be determined. But the Wildcats clearly didn’t help their cause in losing for the second time in just more than two weeks following a 21-0 start.
Arizona is now 23-2 and 10-2 in Pac-12 play.
ASU certainly played well enough to win, and Arizona offered some assistance, failing to close out the game in the final two minutes after taking a 63-59 lead.
Until that point, freshman Rondae Hollis-Jefferson had been doing a "fabulous" job on ASU shooting guard Jermaine Marshall, who had been stifled for most of the second half. But, all of a sudden, Marshall hit a 3-pointer to make it 63-62 with 1:34 left.
And after two Kaleb Tarczewski free throws with 76 seconds left, Marshall hit another 3-pointer, and just like that it was tied.
After an Aaron Gordon free throw (he went 3 for 8 from the line on the night), Marshall hit a driving layup to give ASU the lead at 67-66 with 14 seconds left.
"Jermaine Marshall did an outstanding job," Miller said. "He made three shots in a row, two 3s and a 2 — eight consecutive points. I give him a lot of credit."
Miller added, "He’s a phenomenal player."
After junior Nick Johnson spent the first half and the early part of the second defending Marshall, Miller switched Hollis-Jefferson onto ASU’s second-leading scorer this season, and Marshall went just 3 of 9 in the second half.
"He was fabulous until the end," Miller said of Hollis-Jefferson. "The thing that’s tough about Marshall he can not only score beyond the arc but he can score inside of it. He’s a terrific player."
Arizona played its part, too. Everything seemed to unravel early and eventually often in the Wildcats’ second loss of the season.
They went just 4 of 16 from 3-point range. They shot 35.9 percent from the floor (24 for 60). They shot just 53.3 percent (16 of 30) from the free-throw line.
It was an ugly night.
"Our offense is continuing to put more pressure on our defense," Miller said. "You can only guard so well. We missed a ton of free throws. Heck, we’ve missed a ton of free throws all year. But eventually that’s going to run its course, because we’re going to leave too many points on the table."
Friday night was that night. And still, Arizona had a chance to at least tie it at the end of the second overtime. But after ASU’s student section returned to its seating area after a premature storming of the court, Johnson’s 25-foot desperation shot bounced off the front of the rim.
Another miss in what turned out to a night of big misses.
"I thought, in the first half, we probably had five or six shots that were probably the best we could generate," Miller said. "And we missed all of them."
Miller said that while the Wildcats didn’t generate as many good shots in the second half as they did in the first, "we did generate more free-throw attempts. But then again, we didn’t make them. So that’s on us."
Miller had been sounding the alarm about free-throw shooting ever since Arizona dodged a proverbial bullet against Oregon more than a week earlier after going just 19 for 35 from the line. The Cats went into Friday night’s game shooting a dreadful 66.4 percent from the stripe as a team.
That number didn’t impove against ASU on a night of frustrations from start to finish.
It was so frustrating, in fact, that Arizona players were not made available to the media after the game, and Miller took just a handful of questions in his postgame gathering.
There were a number of factors that played into the poor performance.
Arizona’s bench had no points. Gabe York, arguably the team’s best shooter, went 0 for 6 from the floor, and freshman Elliott Pitts also went scoreless.
The Wildcats also had 15 turnovers, with an uncharacteristic six coming from junior point guard T.J. McConnell, who had arguably his worst game in an Arizona uniform despite scoring 17 points. He did go 7 of 15 from the field but also went 0 for 2 from the free-throw line.
"I was surprised that he was 7 for 15," Miller said. "I felt like he missed more than that. But the six turnovers really hurt us. T.J. is obviously our quarterback; taking care of the ball is big. If you look at those turnovers, they are like missed free throws. They continue to put more and more pressure against you."
On Friday night, the Wildcats finally broke under that pressure.