A month from now, after the Arizona Wildcats have more high-profile December games and kick into Pac-12 play, coach Sean Miller figures this one will be all but forgotten.

After all, on paper, Arizona's 63-55 win over Southern Miss at McKale Center was just another eight-point victory at home, another warmup for bigger things ahead, another one of 30 regular-season games on a road the Wildcats hope extends deep into the spring.

Yet it was a game Miller and the Wildcats won't soon forget, even if everyone else does.

The eighth-ranked Wildcats (6-0) were severely tested for the first time all season, trailing 35-27 at halftime and much of the second half, flustered by the Golden Eagles' aggressive zone defense.

The Wildcats shot just 35 percent from the field in the first half and turned the ball over a staggering 27 times. Arizona had not had that many turnovers since the 1998-99 season, when it coughed up 30 in a home win against Washington State.

But they found a way to survive, and they found some things in their team they didn't have, or didn't need to have, in five relatively easy wins before Tuesday.

"It's kind of weird to say it, but I'm happy we had a close game," said guard Nick Johnson, who led the Wildcats with a career-high 23 points. "I know we have the veteran leadership, but our freshmen really haven't been through a close game. We pulled this one out, but we also got the experience factor."

They pulled it out because of what they did find, among others: Johnson's go-to scoring when the Wildcats needed it the most, Kevin Parrom's toughness and confidence in the middle of Southern Miss' zone defense, Solomon Hill's 3-for-5 three-point shooting and a general grittiness that kept the Golden Eagles at just 36 percent shooting in the second half - including a 0 for 8 mark from three-point range.

It was that second-half defense, which held Southern Miss to just 20 points after halftime, that allowed the Wildcats to survive not only their 27 turnovers but the fact that the Golden Eagles took 17 more field goals than they did.

"This game proved how tough we are," said Parrom, who finished with 14 points and eight rebounds. "They gave us problems early but we figured it out and got in the zone. It was a tough game but I'm glad we pulled through."

In other words, it was a totally different game than any the Wildcats have played all season.

While they struggled with a zone defense in their season opener against Charleston Southern, trailing as late as 19 minutes into the game, Arizona has coasted in every game since then.

The Wildcats never trailed against UTEP, Long Beach State and NAU, and only trailed Texas Tech 2-0 last Saturday before blowing out the Red Raiders 85-57. They entered Tuesday's game sixth nationally in scoring average with 85.2 points a game and were shooting 52.3 percent from the field.

But this time, there was trouble from the beginning. Southern Miss took an early 10-3 lead and led the rest of the half. The Golden Eagles took a 35-24 lead after getting three-pointers from Cedric Jenkins and Neil Watson, before Johnson hit a three-pointer just before the halftime buzzer to cut the Golden Eagles' lead to single digits.

The biggest issue for UA early was in dealing with the zone, which did not extend out and press as much as it had previously this season.

"Their zone really threw us off in the first half," Johnson said. "I mean really for the first half, I wouldn't say we weren't prepared for it, it was just a different kind of zone. … I don't know what it was. It was definitely nothing I've ever played against."

Not only did the zone keep UA from running its offense effectively - the Wildcats were forced to take 13 of their 20 first-half shots from three-point territory - but the Golden Eagles also prompted UA center Kaleb Tarczewski to pick up two early fouls that took away his early size advantage over a team that has no starter over 6-foot-6.

"It was tough in the first half," Tarczewski said.

Actually, all of UA's three freshmen big men struggled. Tarczewski came back to total seven points and seven rebounds, but Grant Jerrett went scoreless in five minutes and Brandon Ashley was replaced as a starter for the second half by Parrom.

But it worked. While point guard Mark Lyons also struggled, with 0-for-7 shooting and three turnovers to just two assists, Parrom played better as the game went on and Johnson, Miller said, was clearly the best player despite his six turnovers.

It was a team win, Miller said, the kind that can benefit them down the road.

As long as they remember it.

"Sometimes for whatever reason you're stymied offensively," Miller said. "When you have those moments, you hope you can learn and grow from them but still win. And that to me is the gratifying thing about tonight."

On StarNet: Find more photos from the game at azstarnet.com/gallery

Up next

• What: No. 8 Arizona at Clemson

• When: 6 p.m. Saturday

• TV; radio: ESPN2; 1290-AM, 107.5-FM