Even while putting together their best-ever start in the modern era, the top-ranked Arizona Wildcats keep showing us they’re still human.
Sometimes, they can’t shoot well from outside. Sometimes, they don’t go deep on their bench. Sometimes they can’t fully capitalize on their size up front.
All of those things happened Saturday, in Arizona’s 71-62 win over Washington at McKale Center. Add that to a little first-half drama with rebounding and defensive struggles and you get, well, another big Pac-12 showdown between Washington and Arizona.
Just like old times. Even if Washington (9-6, 1-1 Pac-12) was perceived to be much less of a team than it was while beating UA in the 2011 Pac-10 tournament final and sweeping them in 2011-12.
“I’ve coached against Washington 10 times and I feel like every one of them is like this,” UA coach Sean Miller said. “We’ve won a few, and we’ve certainly lost a few.”
Arizona’s win actually evened up the series with the Huskies in the Miller era at 5-5, while moving the Wildcats to 15-0 overall and 2-0 in Pac-12. That means the Wildcats now are off to their best start since 1931-32, when somebody decided to count a pair of wins each over Dixie Junior College and the UA Alumni All-Stars toward the Wildcats’ 16-0 start.
Arizona began last season at 14-0 but then lost at Oregon in its first conference road game. The Wildcats will now take their first conference road trip of this season, facing UCLA on Thursday and USC on Sunday.
But if their effort Saturday was any indication — as also in comeback wins over Drexel, UNLV and Michigan — the UA may find a way to survive those games, too.
While UA has had flaws, it has always found a way to get it done.
On Saturday, while Nick Johnson had trouble hitting jumpers, and Kaleb Tarczewski couldn’t convert inside, Arizona simply opened up its transition game with defense and converted a mind-jarring number of layups and dunks inside.
Of the Wildcats’ 24 field goals, 16 were dunks or layups, and 10 of 13 made shots were in the second half, when UA came back for the fifth time this season from a first-half deficit, this time 35-33.
“That’s what good teams do, we battle through adversity,” Johnson said. “They’re a good team. Their record may not show it but in the Pac there’s so much familiarity and then you have players who can score like they do. They got us down a little bit but we made our runs and made our shots when it counted.”
This was no more true than when UA began a 9-3 run in the middle of the second half, getting a rebound dunk from Aaron Gordon, a steal from T.J. McConnell that led to a Johnson dunk, plus inside scores from Gabe York and Johnson.
By the end of it, UA led 60-54 and stayed ahead the rest of the way in a game that had nine lead changes. At that point, the sellout McKale Center crowd of 14,545 was at full steam, dominating the atmosphere more than UA’s flashy new video board.
“There’s no better place to play when we’re going on a run,” Johnson said. “We get a few dunks and the place goes crazy. But we had a timeout after that (with four minutes left) and coach said it’s not over yet, and you gotta keep getting stops and keep on getting out on the break.”
The Huskies cut it to 60-58 with 3:39 left on a pair of free throws by C.J. Wilcox, but Johnson dunked again, and hit 4 of 4 free throws in the final 1:12.
Johnson finished with a resourceful and acrobatic 24 points — he also glided in for a 360-degree dunk in the first half — to make himself yet again the day’s MVP despite going 1 for 5 from three-point range. Johnson had four rebounds, four assists and two steals, with three turnovers.
“Nick’s obviously our team’s heart and soul,” Miller said. “You can tell he’s been through conference play a number of times because he’s accustomed to playing under pressure now.”
On defense, Johnson spent much of his time on Wilcox, which is nobody’s idea of fun. Even though Miller said he thought UA made it tough on Wilcox, the senior still managed to hit 8 of 19 for 20 points.
“Everybody throws these letters ‘NBA’ out there like 15 of the guys in today’s game are going to go to the NBA,” Miller said. “To me, he looks like an NBA player. He had 20 and we did everything we could to stop him.”
Johnson’s production on both sides of the ball, plus the fact that Gordon shook off an uncharacteristic first-half rebounding slump, covered up a lot of UA’s other troubles, like the fact that Tarczewski and Brandon Ashley made just two shots apiece.
Gordon had only one rebound in the first half, finding himself unusually out of sorts when he had demonstrated a similar high-intensity focus in nearly every other game this season.
So, with UA as a whole being out-rebounded 17-12 at halftime, Miller said he had a little discussion with Gordon about it. Not that Gordon wasn’t already discussing it with himself.
Rebounding “is something I pride myself on,” Gordon said. “Going into halftime I had only one and I was mad about that. Then I got 10 in the second half. My mindset kind of changed, and I need to have that going into the game the next time.”
That’s probably not a bad idea. UA will have to play UCLA on Thursday, after the Bruins beat them three times last season. They’ll try to figure a way to win. Again.
“That’s just the attitude of our team,” Johnson said. “We won’t give up.”