Nick Johnson jumped up and winged a skip pass over the defense, hoping to hit an open shooter on the other side of the floor.
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The ball got over the defense all right — along with the shooter he was aiming for, the rest of his teammates on the bench and the coaches, landing about five rows into the stands.
Ugly? Yes it was, but the Arizona Wildcats managed to overcome that miscue and many more, pulling out a win that could go a long way later in the season.
Johnson scored 23 points, Kevin Parrom had 13 of his 14 in the second half and the eighth-ranked Wildcats overcame a season-high 27 turnovers to hold off Southern Mississippi 63-55 Tuesday night.
”Anytime you have 27 turnovers against a good team at home is unacceptable,” Arizona coach Sean Miller said. ”Having said that, to be able to win and have all those turnovers, that’s a completely different story.”
Struggling against Southern Miss’ zone, Arizona (6-0) spent most of the night throwing passes that had no hope of being completed, bumbling away others, giving the ball back seconds after forcing a turnover on defense.
The Wildcats survived behind their defense and veteran leadership.
Picking up the defensive pressure, Arizona forced Southern Miss into 17 second-half turnovers and gave the Golden Eagles no room to shoot, inside or out.
Faced with a tight game, Miller stuck with his proven players instead of the talented youngsters for most of the second half and they came through.
Johnson had 13 points in the first half and hit some big baskets while leading the turnover-creating charge at the top of Arizona’s defense.
Parrom gave the Wildcats a release valve to Southern Miss’ zone in the second half with his passing out of the high post and scored seven points during a key stretch.
Fellow senior Solomon Hill overcome a rare quiet night offensively with sturdy defense in the post and the biggest shot of the game, a 3-pointer in front of Arizona’s bench that gave the Wildcats a 57-51 lead with 1:49 left.
All those turnovers and the Wildcats still managed to pull out a victory, giving them confidence that could carry over in tight games later in the season, not to mention their best start since opening the 1999-2000 season with six straight wins.
”We pulled this one out, but we also got the experience factor to learn how to play in close games, how to take good shots,” Johnson said. ”I think that will help us.”
Southern Miss (6-2) gave Arizona all kinds of trouble with its swarming zone, forcing 13 turnovers while building an eight-point halftime lead. The Golden Eagles kept forcing the Wildcats into mistakes in the second half, but couldn’t overcome their own.
Southern Miss missed all eight of its 3-pointers in the second half and had turnovers on eight consecutive possessions to nearly quadruple its total from the first half, spoiling what was a superb defensive effort.
Neil Watson led Southern Miss with 17 points and Michael Craig added 10 with seven rebounds. Southern Miss leading scorer Dwayne Davis didn’t play because of the flu.
”Both defenses were going after the ball, both teams were playing hard,” Southern Miss coach Donnie Tyndall said. ”You have to credit the defense; they were forcing turnovers. I thought few of ours were unforced, though.”
This game was strength vs. strength: Arizona’s offense against Southern Miss’ defense.
The Golden Eagles had the advantage in the first half, turning Arizona’s 13 turnovers — two fewer than it had in a win over Texas Tech on Saturday — into 18 points and a 35-27 lead.
The Wildcats turned the turnover table around in the second half.
Playing more aggressively, Arizona forced Southern Miss into 11 turnovers in the first eight minutes.
Of course, the Wildcats weren’t exactly taking care of the ball, so the game stayed close until the closing minutes.
That’s when Arizona’s upperclassmen took over.
Parrom got it started with two baskets inside and a 3-pointer in transition. Hill followed with his spirit-sapping 3-pointer and Arizona’s defense did the rest, keeping the Golden Eagles from making a run.
”We felt like we had the game in our hands and within our grasp, but coming into the second half we started getting loose,” Watson said. ”Arizona has a tight defense. They’re No. 8 and in the second half, they showed us why they are No. 8.”