TUCSON, Ariz. — Now you know why Arizona coach Sean Miller gets anxious before home games.
Heck, any game. It’s the razor-thin-margin-for-error thing he always talks about.
It’s never easy, and surely it’s not always pretty. What was to have been a stroll in the park Saturday afternoon against the Utah Utes turned into a potential nightmare. After all, Utah entered the game 0-9 on the road this season, 5-19 overall and 2-10 in the Pac-12.
And although he was happy with the 70-61 victory, Miller was also pragmatic and clearly pointed in his evaluation.
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“There’s only so much you can do, and we’re coaching through it,” Miller said. “We’re fighting hard. Sometimes you yell and scream, and sometimes you say nothing, but we don’t have a confident team, and it’s disappointing.”
This from a coach who had just watched his team win its fourth consecutive game and move to 18-8 overall while staying near the top of the Pac-12 race at 9-4.
Arizona didn’t allow a basket or a point in the game’s final 5:42. That was one of the good things.
After lauding his players for clutch shots and late-game heroics, Miller all but blasted them by saying he was disappointed in their “pathetic confidence.”
“We looked frightened. We missed open shots. We were lethargic,” Miller said. “We did the same thing that we’ve done against Oregon at home and at times against Washington (both losses). It’s not alarming anymore because we are nearly in March, but it’s disappointing.”
His disgust was explainable. The Wildcats were outplayed for the game’s first 25 minutes — they fell behind by as many as 12 with 17:45 left — until they went on a 15-0 run over the next five minutes to eventually take their first lead of the game at 46-43.
In that important stretch, Kyle Fogg hit a 3-pointer and Brendon Lavender hit three consecutive treys to get Arizona over the hump. The Wildcats eventually squandered the lead again, but they had done enough to pull out the win.
“My teammates were looking for me — they knew I had the hot hand,” said Lavender, who had 12 points. “I get the most confidence when I see Fogg shoot how he has been. And seeing Nick (Johnson) hit shots. That just gives me more confidence for hitting shots.”
It was clearly Johnson’s best game in about a month. The freshman finished with 18 points (one shy of his career high), 12 coming in the second half. All dozen of those points came after the score was tied 51-51 with 8:59 left.
“I really don’t look at it as personal thing,” Johnson said, referring to being the late-game star.
When asked if there were many freshmen in the country who are capable of taking control at the end of the game like Johnson, Fogg shook his said and said, “I don’t know many … there’s one right here.”
Johnson wasn’t alone. It took a team effort to get the win. By the final buzzer, Arizona had four players in double figures. Solomon Hill added 14 points and a team-high eight rebounds, Fogg had 17 points and UA got a good game from freshman guard Josiah Turner, who had seven assists and no turnovers.
Despite such efforts, the victory felt more like a one- or two-possession win than a near-double-digit victory.
Miller gave a lot of credit to Utah, which he said played with a lot of poise and spread out Arizona offensively.
After talking about the positives — such as Lavender hitting some big shots, Fogg getting six steals and Johnson “having the best game while at Arizona because of the timeliness of his plays,” — Miller went off about the negatives.
He said he was disappointed in himself and his players that they failed to play with confidence. Only two days earlier, many credited the Wildcats’ confidence for having won three in a row.
“For me to say I’m tired of it would be a major understatement,” Miller said. “It’s disappointing beyond words.”
Miller then said he knew his team’s problems weren’t all done with, reiterating his oft-repeated sentiment that UA’s margin for error is “razor thin.”
“Hopefully we’ve learned a lesson and can move forward at Washington State,” Miller said.
NOTES: Fogg didn’t start for the first time in 29 games. He was late for the team’s shootaround earlier in the day and didn’t play for the first few minutes. He has started 110 career games, seventh in UA history.