SAN DIEGO — This was like the schoolyard fight where the pipsqueak gets in a few big pops, but the bully still wins.
Arizona was better than San Diego State in just about every area on Thursday night in a 69-60 win at Viejas Arena.
Bigger, stronger, meaner, tougher.
But that didn’t mean the scrappy Aztecs didn’t connect with a handful of haymakers.
Down 11 with 5 minutes 34 seconds left, San Diego State rallied to cut the deficit to four with 1:51 remaining. The Wildcats, though, exchanged blows, winning when T.J. McConnell and Nick Johnson hit five of six free throws in the game’s final minute.
Arizona’s fatigue — and satisfaction — was on display as the Wildcats walked off the court.
Sean Miller exchanged high fives with Gabe York; McConnell hugged assistant Damon Stoudemire.
For a mid-November game, it left Arizona panting, drenched in sweat — and smiling.
“Winning breeds confidence, but especially winning on the road,” Miller said. “This environment, this crowd — we’re not going to play in front of a more hostile or better crowd than the one we just played in, and here it is, not even November yet.
“For our team to come in here and play a true road game, I’m proud of that.”
Normally teams are just starting to fatten up before Thanksgiving, feasting on lesser teams in lesser arenas with lesser crowds that present all the challenge of an armless fencer.
But Arizona took and passed an early-season test by adding some physicality to its finesse and athleticism.
To a Pittsburgh guy like Miller, with a Pittsburgh point guard like McConnell, it was a reminder that basketball isn’t all about alley oops and ooh and aahs. It’s about grit, sometimes, and toughness.
“We have to be a very good defensive team, an excellent rebounding team and we have to be able to get the ball close to the basket and score,” said Miller, whose team held San Diego State to 36 percent shooting, including 29.6 percent shooting in the second half. “That doesn’t mean we can’t play fast or make threes or thrive in transition, but the starting point is to utilize the size we have to our advantage.”
Arizona stifled SDSU forward Josh Davis, an impact transfer who scored 17.6 points per game last season for Tulane, and harried starting forward Skylar Spencer, not letting him even attempt a shot.
Miller said Kaleb Tarczewski handled Davis — who scored two points on 1-of-7 shooting — for much of the second half and added, “(Davis) didn’t have a great night, and I’m sure we had something to do with it.”
Aztecs coach Steve Fisher agreed.
“So often you say what you didn’t do, but I’m going to put a serve into the court of Arizona as a reason why we didn’t shoot well,” Fisher said.
Perhaps not a good idea to serve to Arizona, as the Wildcats were so eager to smash it back down on the Aztecs’ side of the net.
Gordon finished with 16 points but added eight important rebounds and two even more important blocks, and Tarczewski and Nick Johnson each added two blocks, as well.
Time and time again, just when it seemed San Diego State was on the verge, Arizona stuffed it right back.
Of course, it didn’t help the Aztec cause that the Wildcats owned the early rounds of the brawl.
Arizona claimed a 39-28 halftime lead, in part because San Diego State managed just one first-half offensive rebound.
“We got ourselves in a deep hole in the first half,” said Aztecs guard Xavier Thames, who had 19 points, along with teammate J.J. O’Brien. “In the second half we came out and fought hard. We have to play all 40 minutes like we did in the second half.”
Added Fisher: “Second half, we found a way to squirm and worm and dive on the floor. But we can’t go a half and shoot the way we did and only get one offensive rebound.”
But as Fisher said, this game was not so much about what San Diego State did as what Arizona allowed them to do.
Not much, most of the time.
A few jabs, here and there.
A good rally, to be sure.
But ultimately, the bigger, badder, stronger, tougher, lither, angrier Wildcats won.
And they’ll remember it long after other teams have fattened up and feasted in early November.
“Winning on the road just takes guts,” Johnson said. “We knew they would get their points, but you have to take it and punch back.”