Arizona Wildcats coach Sean Miller had five days to plug the holes left by Brandon Ashley’s absence, but he couldn’t fix them all.
No matter how hard he tried. Literally.
In their 67-65 win over Oregon on Thursday at McKale Center, the Wildcats threw up woeful three-point attempts, midrange shots and free throws. But instead of making up for those not-unusual shooting problems on the rebounding glass, they allowed Oregon 13 offensive rebounds and 11 second-chance points off them.
That’s what drove Miller nuts. Without Ashley around to clean up the glass, Miller lunged and yelled and kneeled down and … split his pants while doing so.
“I watched so many second shots by Oregon, I went to the next level,” Miller said, apologizing for the delay to his postgame news conference while he changed. “I wanted to get in the game and block someone out.”
Without Ashley around to score, keep Arizona’s once-cohesive offense in a rhythm and to collect rebounds, the Wildcats required a late three-pointer from T.J. McConnell and some defensive heroics down the stretch in order to get back on the winning side.
The win moved Arizona to 22-1 overall and 9-1 in the Pac-12, heading into a Sunday night game with Oregon State. Oregon dropped to 15-7 and 3-7.
Arizona struggled from the free-throw line (54.3 percent) and three-point line (25.0) and didn’t make up for it with a rebounding advantage, with Oregon having a 40-35 rebounding edge. The UA did have 15 offensive rebounds to Oregon’s 13.
So it was clear to Nick Johnson, who led the Wildcats in scoring with 18 points, how they missed Ashley the most.
“Rebounding. No question,” Johnson said. “He’s obviously a talented scorer and had gotten a lot better, but he averaged (5.8) rebounds for us, so offensively and defensively” that helped.
At the end, though, just like they had so many times before even with Ashley, the Wildcats pulled this one out with just enough to get by.
McConnell, having missed seven of his previous eight shots, hit a three-pointer with 1:30 left that gave UA a 52-50 lead that the Wildcats held for good.
After Oregon’s Richard Amardi missed a jumper on the Ducks’ ensuing possession, Johnson drew a foul near the free-throw line and hit both free throws to make it 64-60.
A layup from Oregon’s Dominic Artis cut the lead to two points with 41 seconds left, but the Ducks missed three of four free throws in the final minute.
The Wildcats were playing their first full game without Ashley, who was lost for the season with a significant foot injury against Cal last Saturday. Rondae Hollis-Jefferson started at small forward in his place, while Aaron Gordon was moved to power forward, and reserve guard Elliott Pitts picked up significant minutes off the bench.
Gordon played just 27 minutes, having rolled his ankle, though Miller said it appeared he would be fine.
While Johnson led the Wildcats with 18 points while Hollis-Jefferson had 14 while playing 34 minutes. He averaged just 23.5 entering the game, indicating that the significant upgrade in playing time was not a problem.
“Ready,” he said of how he felt. “Ready.”
But it wasn’t nearly as simple as leaving Hollis-Jefferson in for another 10 minutes, and popping Pitts in for 10 in the first half and two in the second.
The Wildcats lacked an offensive rhythm for much of the game, and maybe even some confidence.
Arizona trailed 38-37 at halftime, and both teams shot poorly early in the second half, with the UA 1-5 and Oregon 1-7 from the field through the first four minutes. But Oregon received a jumper and a three-pointer from Joseph Young, who was hurt in the first half, to take a 46-40 lead with 14 minutes left.
If it appeared the Wildcats appeared to be losing confidence offensively, McConnell said he didn’t think so.
“I thought we were fine,” he said. “We were missing some we didn’t make. Our offense was a little out of sync, but we battled back, and we’ve done that so many times this year.”
The UA flashed to its old ways midway through the second half, with a defensive stop leading to a dunk from Hollis-Jefferson, tying the game at 50 with 10:12 left. At that point, Johnson said, the Wildcats turned it up.
“That might have been the high,” Johnson said. “Everyone was going crazy. From that point on, we locked in a little more on defense and T.J. made a big shot.”
It was enough, for now, for a first game with a new team of sorts.
Maybe things will get better from here.
“No matter how much we’re going to try to get this the most right we can, you can’t go five months doing things a certain way with a certain group of people … and then in five days magically insert players,” Miller said. “It’s going to take some time, and I believe that given that time, we’ll improve; we’ll regain things that maybe we had.”