PHOENIX — Early in Tuesday’s second half, Arizona guard Dylan Smith made a mistake while defending an inbounds play, allowing Texas A&M to score an easy basket.

UA coach Sean Miller called timeout and threw his clipboard on the Talking Stick Resort Arena floor so hard that it shattered in half. By the time Miller was done yelling at Smith, his staffers had already retrieved a new clipboard.

On Texas A&M’s ensuing inbounds play, Smith made the right move off the screen and defended a shot. The Aggies missed.

Smith was on the floor in crunch time at the end of Tuesday’s game, switching off with freshman Brandon Randolph. Smith for defense, Randolph for offense.

By the end of the night, they might have been Arizona’s two most important players, non-Deandre Ayton division. If Arizona is going to win in March, it won’t be because Ayton scored 20 points and grabbed 10 rebounds, or because Allonzo Trier dropped 30 points.

Arizona needs Smith and Randolph to step up. High-pressure situations in December can only help the team in March.

“This is something you want to do to prepare your team for bigger things down the road,” Miller said.

Smith and Randolph played in crunch time in a last-second victory against the No. 7 Aggies, and on Saturday, both played key roles in Arizona’s overtime win at UNLV.

Less than two weeks ago, the Wildcats lost three games in three nights in a nightmarish trip to the Bahamas, an unprecedented losing streak at the Battle 4 Atlantis. Miller ranted about his team’s lack of defensive effort upon his return, saying that the Wildcats’ much-hyped freshman class hadn’t done much to prove themselves.

Miller changed his tune on Tuesday night. There’s progress, at least.

“I don’t know how fast or slow it is, but we’re playing some really good teams,” Miller said. “We’re playing good teams. It’s one thing to learn, but you’re trying to win as well. There’s no better way than to have both. Good competition and the ability to learn.”

Smith never played in this type of situation in his lone season at UNC Asheville. Last year, he was an observer, sitting out a season at Arizona due to NCAA transfer rules. He’d been inconsistent for the Wildcats so far this season, but had been playing more in late-game situations out of defensive necessity.

Tuesday, he helped on offense too.

Smith scored 13 points, tied for a team-high with three other players.

“I feel like I’ve gotten better just the whole time I’m at Arizona, learning from different things, seeing what not to do last year, just gaining coach’s trust,” Smith said. “Him meeting with me, telling me things I can do to help the team win, that’s all it’s about.”

Miller trusted Smith to get a stop in a close game in his first year playing Power 5 conference basketball. He then trusted Randolph to make two free throws to ice Arizona’s opponent and win the game, on two separate occasions.

Randolph hit 1 of 2 free throws both trips to the line. The Aggies had chances to tie and win the game, but didn’t convert.

Randolph and Smith combined to score 26 points. Ayton and Trier combined for 20 in Arizona’s most important victory of the season to date.

Alabama comes to McKale Center on Saturday night, with March now three months away.

“Sometimes guys have to learn how hard you have to play,” Miller said. “When you’re in the Bahamas playing three games in three nights, it’s not easy. When you’re new this, even if you’re really talented, it takes a little bit of time to figure out ‘what does coach really mean?’ The last two games, these guys have a much better understanding of what it takes to win.”

Contact:zrosenblatt@tucson.com or 573-4145. On Twitter: @ZackBlatt

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