The doubters got it right, for one game. That’s all the Arizona Wildcats intend to give them.
While Arizona was predictably wounded physically and mentally during a two-point win over Oregon on Thursday, struggling to adjust without injured forward Brandon Ashley, things changed in a hurry Sunday.
The No. 2 Wildcats put together a 76-54 win over Oregon State at McKale Center that suggested maybe they can win the Pac-12 easily, maybe they will run the table at home, and maybe they can go deep into the postseason after all.
“I don’t think we had any doubts, but I know a lot of people from the outside doubted us,” guard T.J. McConnell said. “That motivated us a lot more.”
They just realized they have to be themselves.
As in, rebound and defend. Hard.
The Wildcats held OSU to just 39.1 percent shooting, stifled OSU guard Roberto Nelson — the conference’s leading scorer — to where he was able to score only 10 points on 3-of-12 shooting and limited the Beavers to just four offensive rebounds and exactly zero second-chance points.
“When we play defense like we do, it’s not surprising” to win big, McConnell said. “A team can’t score, they’re not going to be able to beat us. It’s all just effort on defense and executing on offense, and we did that on both ends tonight.”
All this, too, against a Beavers team that was playing with confidence, entering Sunday’s game with their best conference record – 5-5 – after 10 games in the last 15 years. OSU had size, athleticism, and experience.
Even coach Sean Miller appeared maybe just a little surprised by it all. He said he felt good after UA survived the close call with Oregon, then discussed how to make it all better.
But a 22-point win against a respectable team, after one game and a couple practices of adjustment?
“I thought we were going to play well today,” Miller said. “I didn’t know what the final margin would be but I thought we had a confidence about us for sure.”
Arizona had three days of practice after Ashley was lost to a foot injury on Feb. 1 at Cal, but Miller said the progress really began to pick up during the Oregon game.
The Wildcats shot only 40 percent, were out-rebounded 40-35 and allowed the Ducks 11 second-chance points. But they started to figure out how to deal with all those issues.
That was something they couldn’t do by just practicing against themselves.
“I thought the Oregon game was the best thing that happened to us because we didn’t have as much confidence in the Oregon game as we did tonight,” Miller said. “It feels different to be out there that first time (without a key player) — but we fought and we scratched and we made some big plays and everybody had a different role it seemed like.”
“It was almost like when we got through those few days and had a chance to talk about it and move on, we were a much more confident group.”
The confidence showed everywhere on the court.
It showed in the first half, when McConnell hit 4 of 7 shots to help the Wildcats take a 37-27 halftime lead and when Aaron Gordon made his first three-pointer in nearly two months.
It showed in how the two guys making the biggest adjustments without Ashley — Gordon and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson — were the Wildcats’ leading scorers: Gordon had 17 and Hollis-Jefferson added 16.
It showed in the second half, when reserve guard Jordin Mayes put together a season-high nine points in just five minutes, hitting a three-pointer and making 6 of 6 free throws.
“I felt good out there,” said Mayes, who had played only 21 previous minutes in conference play this season.
It even showed in how forward Matt Korcheck, in just his third Pac-12 game, came in to grab two offensive rebounds in five minutes.
And it showed after the game when Gordon, who was just 2 for 11 from the line against Oregon, defiantly discussed his 41.8 percent free-throw shooting after he missed his only attempt Sunday (a potential and-one).
“I’m not going to let myself be a poor free throw shooter,” Gordon said. “I know with my maturity rising and becoming older, I’m going to be a great free throw shooter. Not just a good one.”
Overall, it showed in the way the Wildcat offense was efficient and selfless, with 15 assists to eight turnovers, and a 50 percent field goal percentage.
“Although we weren’t perfect, there were times that our offense was really executing, there were times when our defense was really tough,” Miller said. “I really feel good about our team’s overall performance.”
The win moved Arizona to 23-1 overall and 10-1 in the Pac-12, while OSU fell to 13-10 and 5-6.
The Wildcats have to play five of their final seven on the road, starting Friday at third-place ASU, but Miller is OK with that.
Especially after Sunday.
“I don’t know what the future holds,” Miller said. “We have a few on the road but the road has brought out the best in this team and that’s what we want to hold to — our hope that we can continue to be good, whether we’re here or on the road.”