“Hopefully we are going to play with great confidence and play hard and well against Washington on Saturday,” Arizona coach Sean Miller said Thursday night.
Kind of like his team did against Washington State to set up the aforementioned showdown.
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Arizona did exactly what it needed to Thursday night. For a moment or two, it looked like a victory was in jeopardy, but the Wildcats came up with just enough for a 76-72 road win that leaves them 19-8 overall and 10-4 in the Pac-12, just one game behind conference co-leader Washington (18-8, 11-3).
Thursday night’s win also assured that UA will not be swept in a Pac-12 series this season.
“It was certainly one of our best wins of the year,” Miller said on his postgame radio show.
It was clearly a team effort. Not surprisingly, there was no true star, in part because every player and play was crucial.
Four Arizona players scored in double figures, with reserve Brendon Lavender leading the way with 17 points. Jesse Perry, playing with four fouls for most of the second half, scored back-to-back baskets with under 1:20 left and finished with 14 points.
“When Jesse Perry picks up his fourth foul one minute into the second half, that doesn’t bode well for us and our situation,’’ Miller said.
But in stepped freshman Angelo Chol, who was sound and solid (again) filling in for Perry. Chol had eight points and four rebounds.
“He only played 18 minutes, but they were huge 18 minutes,’’ Miller said. “While Jesse was out, we weren’t just filling in for him. We had a guy who was contributing.”
When Perry finally did return, he had the game’s two biggest baskets, scoring with 1:20 left on a pass from Solomon Hill and again with 38 seconds left on a pass from Josiah Turner that eventually turned into a three-point play. The second basket gave UA a 72-69 lead. UA then hit four consecutive free throws down the stretch to seal the win.
“There had to be a pass to find him,” Miller said, lauding the assists. “Solomon threw an excellent pass and Josiah threw an excellent pass. Jesse caught it and finished. It was good to see us score in those meaningful times instead of just relying on the 3.”
Miller did, however, acknowledge the 3-pointer was key again. Arizona went 9 for 19 from beyond the arc, which kept the Wildcats in the game after they had fallen behind — again — early in the first half.
Another bright spot for the Cats was the turnovers, more specifically a lack of them. They finished with 12, with just one in the final 10 minutes.
“We talk about playing with 12 or fewer,” Miller said. “Twelve is the magic number for us. We will have a chance to win that game on Saturday if we can play with 10 or fewer turnovers, maybe 12.”
Kyle Fogg had 16 points and 10 rebounds for the first double-double of his career. Lavender went 5 of 7 from the 3-point line, again being Arizona’s parachute from the perimeter.
“I can’t tell you enough about Kyle Fogg and Brendon Lavender,” Miller said. “They were 7 for 12 from 3 and combined for 33 points. That’s what you want from seniors, especially from mid-to-late-February games that mean a lot to this year’s team and for their careers.
“It’s very gratifying to see our guys respond and be resilient.”
And they were able to overcome the play of Washington State center Brock Motum, who had a game-high 28 points but also missed six consecutive free throws in the game’s final minutes.
“Brock Motum is the leading scorer in our conference for a reason,” Miller said. “He just continues to emerge. He’s a difficult player to defend. We’re thankful he didn’t have a great night from the line. That was the only thing that saved us from scoring 35.”
And maybe pulling off the win. But Arizona’s group effort was good enough to set up the Showdown in Seattle.