After five days, Sean Miller appeared to feel a little better.
Following UA's loss at Colorado on Saturday, Miller said repeatedly he couldn’t get through to his players and make them play hard ... but after UA beat Oregon State 62-53 on Thursday was considerably more upbeat.
In fact, he said they played the hardest of the season. Even if it didn’t always show in the box score.
“I am happy with our defensive effort,” Miller said. “That’s as hard as we’ve played. It’s not really my opinion. You look out there, guys are really helping each other, pressuring the ball, steals are happening.
“Some of their turnovers were turnovers because of us and it was good to see. Our defensive effort and the consistent effort broke the game open. They’re really good at transition defense. I don’t know how many points we would have scored in those situation if we had been better in that area. …
"We probably had three or four shots on a 2-on-1 or 1-on-1 in transition where we came up empty. Chances of us not getting fouled or scoring on those plays is slim.”
Miller’s reaction to the defensive-minded game was absorbed by his players. Even though the Wildcats scored their fewest first-half points of the season, just 21, Rawle Alkins said Miller told them at halftime that they stayed in the game because of their defense.
Alkins embraced the thought.
“Defense wins games, especially in March,” Alkins said. “What’s gonna happen when you have a tough shooting night like we had in the first half (if you don’t defend?) In order to stay in the game, I thought we showed that we were playing great defense. In the Colorado game, we didn’t play as good defense and they kind of had that huge lead (up to 20 points) in the beginning of the game.”
Allonzo Trier said it also came down to taking care of the ball offensively. UA had nine turnovers in the first half, leading to eight OSU points, but had just three turnovers in the second half.
“We had a few bad possessions and also we turned the ball over a lot in the first half,” Trier said. “If we take care of the ball, we get a chance for a shot or offensive rebound and you’re going to get a chance to score a lot more. We’ve gotta be smarter.”
Although he took a while to warm up, Trier played an efficient game. He had five points in the first half but had his 21 points on 6-for-12 shooting, shot 4 of 9 from 3-point range, hit 5 of 6 free throws and had four rebounds, a block, a steal and an assist to two turnovers.
Though his shooting percentages in Pac-12 play are down slightly, Trier has made 18 of 19 free throws over four conference games.
“You know, his numbers are amazing,” Miller said. “If you look at him through 17 games, he’s shooting over 50 percent from the field (52.6), over 40 percent from three (41.1), over 80 percent from foul line (83.3). He did all three of those tonight.
“He had a quiet 21 but I think we have to help him get a couple of better looks in the first 8-12 minutes of the game. He’s become good at letting the game come to him and now it’s up to our staff to be able to trigger a few shots where he can get some early looks to maybe get him and our team going. Once again his second half was better than his first and that’s really been his pattern all year.”
Arizona received only five points from its bench, on inside shots from Brandon Randolph and Ira Lee. Randolph was 1 for 7 from the field and missed a dunk, while Dylan Smith was 0 for 2, Emmanuel Akot didn’t take a shot in three minutes and neither Alex Barcello nor Keanu Pinder played at all.
“A big part of our development is our bench, to make good plays, to be out there for an extended period of time and keep this thing going,” Miller said. “Tonight, from an offensive perspective, 2 for 10 from the field if you weren’t a starter. That’s not good, 0 for 4 from 3. Ira Lee had a couple of good defensive plays but our group off the bench is better offensively than that. We need everybody. So our continued development ,not just with the starters, is really important.”
Miller said he hoped the zone defense that OSU played Thursday will be of some help in preparing for Oregon on Saturday. The Wildcats have the same turnaround time, though of course they don’t have to fly over the Rockies in between games.
“They have one of the best coaches in the country,” Miller said of Oregon and Dana Altman. “They have a great confidence about them. This is a younger group, a younger team, so instead of us facing maybe a blend of upperclassmen they have maybe more faces based on how much they lost from a year ago. But they’re only going to get better as time moves on.
“They’re gonna play matchup zone. They’re going to press and hopefully tonight is a great test for us to get ready for that game.”
The Ducks didn’t play at McKale last season because of the Pac-12’s unbalanced schedule, but their last visit was pretty memorable: They snapped UA’s 49-game homecourt winning streak.
Rawle Alkins didn’t play in the game but he probably won’t forget it, either: He was taking his official visit to Tucson that weekend.
“When they lost, when Arizona lost, it felt like the world ended,” Alkins said. “So that’s something that was great to see. That caught my attention in terms of coming to this school. When we lose here, it’s like the world is over. It was good to see but also bad to see because they lost. Hopefully this time around, we get to change it.”