No. 8 Arizona’s defense shuts down rival Sun Devils
Arizona had 11 days off following its first loss of the season and spent the time working on its weaknesses, like free-throw shooting and offensive rebounding.
But coach Sean Miller is a defensive-minded coach, so of course the Wildcats worked on that end of the floor quite a bit.
It certainly showed at the start of the Pac-12 season.
Using the extended break to its advantage, No. 8 Arizona harassed rival Arizona State into a rash of mistakes and turnovers in a 73-49 rout Sunday night.
"We spent a lot of time working on defense," said Arizona’s Rondae-Hollis Jefferson, who had 13 points and eight rebounds. "It felt good to go out and play defense like that."
Arizona (12-1) lost to UNLV in its last game and was sharp after the extended break, dominating Arizona State at both ends to quickly turn its rivalry game into a runaway.
The Wildcats took control with a big early run while building a 20-point halftime lead and kept the pressure up to get their conference season off to a rousing start.
Arizona had a rare good night from the free-throw line, making 16 of 19, and shot 51 percent despite a sloppy second half. Brandon Ashley and Stanley Johnson scored 13 points each.
"We had a good week of practice this week and I was hoping some of the good things we did would carry over into the first Pac-12 game of the year," Miller said. "And I believe that happened."
Arizona State (8-6) beat then-No. 2 Arizona in Tempe last season, but had no chance at repeating the upset after finishing with more turnovers (22) than field goals (14).
Gerry Blakes led the Sun Devils with nine points, but struggled for the first time since moving over to point guard, finishing with eight turnovers. Roosevelt Scott, the second starting guard, had five turnovers and Arizona State tied for the second-most in nine seasons under coach Herb Sendek.
"I’m not going to spend a lot of mental energy trying to label it," Sendek said. "We have guys who are trying to do the right thing and obviously with Gerry trying to play that position for the first time, we’re a work in progress."
Arizona won its first 12 games before a surprising loss at UNLV on Dec. 23, ending a 39-game nonconference winning streak.
Miller put the Wildcats through a string of difficult practices, hoping to cure the problems that had cropped up in that loss.
Sendek had shifted his team’s momentum by shuffling his lineup.
Coming off a triple-overtime home loss to Lehigh, Sendek put Savon Goodman and Roosevelt Scott in the starting lineup and shifted Blakes to point guard. The Sun Devils followed with two of their most impressive victories of the season, beating Detroit by 39 and Harvard by 10.
Miller also shifted his lineup open the conference season, starting Hollis-Jefferson and Elliott Pitts over Johnson and Gabe York.
The change seemed to help Arizona’s shooting, particularly from the perimeter early.
The Wildcats took their first five shots from the 3-point line and made four, with Hollis-Jefferson adding three free throws after being fouled on another.
"I worry sometimes when we shoot a lot of 3-pointers early because it can be fool’s gold, but I thought for the most part the ones we took presented themselves," Miller said.
Arizona was just as sharp defensively and raced away from Arizona State with a 15-1 run to go up 21-8.
Arizona State had trouble just getting into its offense, some of it from Arizona’s pressure, but also because of sloppiness.
The Sun Devils had eight field goals (on 21 shots) and 13 turnovers in the first half.
Arizona hit 17 of 29 shots and led 45-25 behind Johnson’s 13 points.
Arizona wasn’t nearly as efficient offensively in the second half, but neither was Arizona State.
The Sun Devils kept missing shots and kept throwing the ball, barely able to get the lead under 20, much less make a game of it.
"That is something we have to look at," Goodman said of the turnovers. "We have to get better and own up to it."
Arizona State: The Sun Devils have not won a road game against a Top 10 opponent since beating No. 9 UCLA 61-58 in overtime in 2009. … Goodman struggled with foul trouble all night and missed all three of his shots, finishing with two points.
Arizona: The Wildcats played their first home game since Dec. 16. … Arizona shot 9 of 22 from the field in the second half.