SALT LAKE CITY – There are only five games left in the Arizona Wildcats’ regular season, but in some ways it feels like November.
With sophomore guard Gabe York inserted into yet another starting lineup for at least the near future — and with coach Sean Miller having loosened the reins on his bench — the new-look Wildcats are learning to survive since Brandon Ashley was lost for the season Feb. 1.
Of course, the core components remain the same — defense and rebounding, above all else — but York’s early contributions in UA’s 67-63 win at Utah on Wednesday gave the Wildcats a much-needed presence on the wing that Arizona has struggled to find since Ashley’s defense-stretching presence was lost.
“With Brandon out, it provides us a more athletic lineup, but Brandon was our stretch-four — he could pick-and-pop, and hit the 15-footer,” guard Nick Johnson said. “We’re trying to transition from that, and Gabe gave us a big spark.”
Moving York into the starting lineup, and putting forward Rondae Hollis-Jefferson back in his sixth-man role, was something of a gamble for Miller. York had averaged just 4.0 points a game since he immediately started playing more minutes in the wake of Ashley’s departure, and he was 0 for 6 from the field against ASU last week.
But toward the end of the first half Wednesday, York rattled off seven points within a minute — on a three-pointer, layup and a jumper. He finished with 15 points.
He was back.
“We wanted to give Gabe an opportunity at the beginning,” Miller said. “Sometimes if you give a guy a fresh opportunity, they play with more confidence. And it ended up working. He shot the ball like he’s capable of.
“Rondae’s role didn’t change. He played the same amount of minutes (31 on Wednesday). It kind of gave Gabe what I would call a new beginning where you have a chance to start and be out there. It’s great to see.”
York said starting the game didn’t necessarily give him a boost of confidence but he knew something changed.
“I knew I was going to start,” he said. “I don’t think it really did (boost confidence) — I just think it was a matter of time before I had a breakout game. I haven’t shot the ball really well as of late.”
Miller also played guard Elliott Pitts for 13 minutes off the bench, with Pitts missing both field goals he took but grabbing two rebounds, and received a layup from Matt Korcheck in two minutes of action.
Hollis-Jefferson, meanwhile, came through with 13 points and four rebounds and helped successfully defend Utah threat Jordan Loveridge, who was just 1 for 12 from the field.
Hollis-Jefferson scored both of UA’s field goals in overtime, a layup after an offensive rebound and a jumper. He also hit two free throws.
All that helped UA survive the fact that standout freshman forward Aaron Gordon wasn’t even available in overtime, having fouled out for the first time this season with 8:41 left in regulation.
“It was tough because (Gordon) is such a big part of our team,” Johnson said. “We might have been going to him in those isos (isolation plays) instead of Rondae, but Rondae stepped up.”
In the end, though, it wasn’t a new wrinkle that saved the Wildcats as much as the return of an old reliable. That is, Johnson, hitting clutch shots and free throws down the stretch.
Johnson, who had shot 25 percent from the field in UA’s four February games entering Wednesday, said he had been struggling in part simply because of the “grind of the seasons.”
But Wednesday he returned to hit a key 17-footer with 2:15 left in regulation and, while he missed the front end of a one-and-one attempt midway through overtime, made 4 of 4 free throws in the final 22 seconds. He finished with 15 points on 4-for-10 field goal shooting while making 6 of 7 from the line.
“I felt like he put a game or two behind him where the ball didn’t go in like it normally does,” Miller said. “He really was himself here with big buckets and free throws. It’s what he’s done all year. We wouldn’t have been able to win without his performance.”