Arizona overcomes early start, Michigan for huge win

Kaleb Tarczewski dunks for two of his 14 points during Arizona's 72-70 win over Michigan on Saturday at Crisler Arena.

It was a game Arizona had every reason to lose: on the road in a tough place to play, an early-morning start, a huge target on its back, young and (fairly) inexperienced, and playing against a talented team looking for some momentum.

Many, if not all, of those factors have doomed excellent Arizona teams in the past. Any one, two, three or more have been the difference between a win and loss on Saturday.

But the top-ranked Wildcats didn’t let any of that bother team. In a cold and unfriendly Crisler Arena, Arizona overtook host Michigan for a 72-70 victory to improve to 11-0.

A year after starting the season 14-0, Arizona has now made it two straight seasons of at least 11 consecutive wins to open the schedule, something never before accomplished in program history.

In the past, morning or midday games — typically on the road, sometimes in the east and almost always far away from Tucson — have doomed the Wildcats. In 1991, an unbeaten Arizona team lost to Arkansas on a snowy day. That squad eventually started 10-1.

And there have been others, some of them losses to teams that weren’t at the level of this year’s Michigan squad. Point is, games of this type have rarely been kind to UA.

But the Wildcats were as tough as they’d has been all season in a game Arizona coach Sean Miller said afterward he felt all along would “go down to the final minutes.”

He was right. And Arizona overcame and persevered.

Coincidentally, in his playing days at Pitt, Miller, was a beneficiary of

an early-morning game against Arizona, with the Panthers beating the Wildcats 100-92 in 1990 in

Pittsburgh.

This time, 23 years later, Miller again was on the winning side, this time as the coach.

“We

have a 5:30, 6 a.m. wakeup call (after arriving about 12 hours earlier),

and that’s not good either,” Miller said on his postgame radio show. “We had every reason to say,

‘Not today.”

Miller added, “We had everything pulling against us leading into the game and throughout the game.”

He then listed the obstacles:

Sophomore big man Kaleb Tarczewski suffered an ankle injury midway through the second half after an impressive start.

Arizona was down double digits on the road but “did not panic and stayed with the belief” it could win.

The Wildcats couldn’t finish around the rim in the first half, falling down 37-28 at the halftime. It was the fourth time Arizona had been down at the half this year. Yet, again, the Cats found a way in the second half.

“We couldn’t stop them,” Michigan coach Jim Beilein said of the finish.

He

also said Arizona’s 17 offensive rebounds “were huge.” The Wildcats

finished with 17 offensive boards, helping them outscore the Wolverines

34-28 in the paint.

Arizona didn’t, just a couple of days after Miller said that it wouldn’t surprise him if his team played really well and still couldn’t find a way to win against Michigan.

But the Wildcats did — and they’ll remain at No. 1 because of it come Monday, when the new polls are released.

“We made this trip with the intention of being at our best,” Miller said. “They kept fighting.”

They had no other choice — it’s what No. 1 teams do, no matter the circumstances.

Down by eight with just under eight minutes left, the Cats closed with a roar and a 22-12 rally. Everyone played a part. Nick Johnson hit six straight free throws in the final minute. Brandon Ashley, who led the team with 18 points, hit a big last-minute basket. Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, who had just three points, had a go-ahead score during the frenzied final minutes.

Johnson, Aaron Gordon and Tarczewski each had 14 points, and almost every one of them was crucial.

“I thought our guys showed a lot of composure,” Miller said on CBS’s postgame broadcast. “(It’s) a lot of belief in what we do.”

And in what Miller agreed was the biggest win of the year — sorry, Duke and San Diego State.

“We’re in as hostile an environment as you can be against (and) against a really good team from a great conference,” Miller said on CBS. “They’re coming off the national championship game a year ago. You could sense they were geared up.”

Michigan led for most of it — Arizona led 7-5 early but not again until it was 63-62 after  three-point play from Hollis-Jefferson — before the teams went back and forth down the stretch. The Wildcats eventually wrapped it up with seven free throws, including the aforementioned six in a row from Johnson, Arizona’s veteran leader.

“What we want to do is play away from home, play big games,” Miller said. “Win or lose today, we’re better because we did this. But I’m very happy and proud of our team.”

Making the ride back home an uncharacteristically good one. 

We had every reason to say, ‘Not today.’ … We had everything pulling against us leading into the game and throughout the game.

Arizona coach Sean Miller