Sean Miller says he needs more than six or seven players. He also had a team that hit only 18.8 percent of its three-pointers Saturday against UNLV.
So why was Gabe York sitting on the bench for 34 minutes?
Defense, of course. Miller benched York after six minutes in the first half of UA’s 63-58 win over UNLV and did not play him at all in the second half, instead giving Rondae Hollis-Jefferson 28 minutes and Jordin Mayes three.
When asked if York was pulled because he made mistakes defensively, Miller said:
“Gabe is very important. We can’t do it with six players or seven. I’m looking at our team and we’re constantly in search of trying to develop our depth, whether it be Jordin or Gabe.
York “came in and from a defensive perspective, I thought he had a couple of plays that he could have done better. So we rode the guys like Rondae who seemed to be at ease in that type of game. But moving forward, Gabe is a real essential part of our team on offense and defense and I’m sure he’ll bounce right back.”
York did not take a three-pointer on Saturday but is 3 for 12 from long range over UA’s previous three games after making 12 for 23 over the Wildcats’ first five games.
Maybe there’s a Pittsburgh-vs.-Philadelphia rivalry out there in Pennsylvania, but you hardly saw it on the court Saturday.
Just 50 seconds after Rondae Hollis-Jefferson assisted T.J. McConnell on a midrange jumper that gave UA the lead for good, McConnell dished to Hollis-Jefferson as he cut along the baseline and dunked.
“We’ve got that Pa. connection,” Hollis-Jefferson said. “Him being from Pittsburgh and me from the Philadelphia area, there’s nothing like it. So when I pass to him or he passes to me, we just gotta smile at each other.”
Of the intercity rivalry, Hollis-Jefferson said: “It disappears. It disappears all the way.”
Miller repeatedly praised UNLV for the skill of its individual players and game plan, but also pointed out that UA failed to convert a lot of easy shots.
According to the UA shot chart, the Wildcats converted all five dunks they took but made only 4 of 7 layups in the first half and only 6 of 12 layups in the second half.
“They were very prepared on both ends… mixed in some triangle-and-two and they did some different things with ball screen defense,” Miller said. “Offensively, they brought the pace way down and were very deliberate, so we had to earn everything.
“For us, there’s no question in the second half we missed maybe five layups, I would call them 4-6 inch shots, uncontested or at the rim. Not a post jump hook or guy goes for a layup but it’s really contested. I’m talking about hard-to-miss shots. I thought we missed six of those, maybe more in the second half. But over the course of a season you have bad shooting nights, you have those turnover nights. Sometimes you have that day or game where one of your best players just can’t make a shot. We had a lot of that going on.
“But for us to fight and win is a real tribute to this team. At halftime, my message was clear that the identity of our team was defense and rebounding and we had neither going especially on the defensive end. But just for a second you have to look at they were 7 for 25 (from the field) 0-8 from three and shot only four free throws in the second half.”
Plenty more praise for McConnell after the game, not surprisingly. McConnell not only dominated the box score but also was involved with all six of UA’s final possessions that resulted in scores.
“T.J. won’t get the credit that he deserves because he wasn’t a high school all-American and played at Duquesne for a couple of years,” Miller said. “But the way he plays the game, and with his ability to defend and play offense to make his teammates better, I wouldn’t trade him for very many players out there. In many ways he’s the heart and soul of what we do. You really saw that in the second half.”
McConnell played with composure down the stretch, which his team appeared to feed off. At least that’s the way center Kaleb Tarczewski put it.
“He’s a great leader to the team,” Tarczewski said. “He always brings energy every day. We talk about his steals, his assists. He really slows the team down, calms us down and really runs the team like no other point guard I’ve played with. So kudos to T.J.”
Tarczewski was sitting next to McConnell’s in UA’s small post-game interview room when he said that, as players always do after home games. So McConnell then smiled and patted him on the shoulder.
Miller later praised McConnell’s composure, too.
“He plays the game to win,” Miller said. “He had some big shots. I think he recognized that our team needed him to score more and he stepped up to the challenge. Six assists and one turnover in that type of game – and 13 points. He had six field goals and three of them were (at the end of the game) in dire straits, ones that we needed. And he delivered.”
McConnell was asked if he was nervous or anxious himself underneath all that as Saturday’s game wound down.
“Not really,” he said. “I kind of live for those moments and I know we all do as well.”
Here's the official box score.
-- Looks like Askia Booker found his three-point shot at the right time in Colorado's win over Kansas.
-- UCLA cooled off in a loss at Missouri.
-- WSU barely held off their cross-border neighbors in Moscow, Idaho.