BASKETBALL

Stumble puts Big Dance in peril

Loss at ASU likely means Cats must win Pac-12 tourney
2012-03-05T00:02:00Z 2014-07-24T10:46:22Z Stumble puts Big Dance in perilBruce Pascoe Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
March 05, 2012 12:02 am  • 

TEMPE - All of ASU's three-pointers, easy layups and free throws against the Arizona Wildcats on Sunday didn't just rattle the rims at Wells Fargo Arena.

There was another sound, too.

"We just popped the bubble," UA forward Solomon Hill said, after Arizona lost 87-80 to its in-state rivals, significantly increasing the likelihood it will need to win the Pac-12 tournament in order to reach the NCAA tournament.

The Wildcats, who finished their regular season at 21-10 overall and 12-6 in the Pac-12, were a bubble team even before they allowed the Sun Devils to score a season-high 87 points and get 21 or more points each from three guys - Jonathan Gilling, Carrick Felix and Trent Lockett - who combined for just 18 when UA beat ASU 68-51 on New Year's Eve.

Now, the Wildcats don't consider themselves a bubble team. More like an NIT-bound team that is looking, as so many teams around the country do, at their conference tournament as an opportunity for salvation.

That's all.

"There's no way we're in now," said guard Kyle Fogg, who led the Wildcats with 23 points. "We're going to have to win the whole" Pac-12 tournament.

Because they were locked into the Pac-12 tournament's No. 4 seed no matter what happened Sunday, the Wildcats will have the same path this week. They will open Thursday in a quarterfinal game against No. 5 UCLA, assuming the Bruins beat short-handed No. 12 seed USC in a first-round game on Wednesday.

What's more, even if the Wildcats beat UCLA they could face top-seeded Washington in the semifinals, after the Huskies won the conference outright and earned the top seed thanks to Stanford's defeat of Cal on Sunday. Washington beat Arizona twice in the regular season.

Arizona and UCLA split their regular-season series and, largely because the Bruins have three big men who have caused the Wildcats trouble, coach Sean Miller called it a tough matchup.

Then again, to Miller, this is the time of year when successful teams find a way to win in tough situations.

On Sunday, the Wildcats were not that team.

"We're not good enough to be an NCAA tournament team right now," Miller said. "That's not to say we've waved the white flag or we're not going to go to L.A. to try to win the tournament. We have a (first-round) bye for a reason.

"But sometimes you say, 'How can that happen?' You have to be good. There's a lot of teams fighting for the same things as us and what they do is they go on the road in a game like today and they leave with a win."

The Wildcats left Wells Fargo with a disheartening loss not because they failed to execute offensively or rebound effectively. Surprisingly, they did so because the one thing it could hang their hats on all season - sound defense - was largely missing.

ASU hit 55.8 percent of its field goals, part of a worsening trend for the Wildcats, a solid defensive team earlier this season that has now allowed opponents to shoot 50 percent or more three times in the past six games.

But the Sun Devils also did some things, Miller noted, that were uncharacteristically good. They made 22 of 24 free throws, despite having made just 62.9 percent over their first 17 Pac-12 games, and turned the ball over 10 times - despite averaging 16.8 turnovers per game in conference play before Sunday.

"There's always characteristics you look for when you play an opponent," Miller said, rattling off things the Sun Devils did better than normal. "You go through every statistic offensively. We had a really hard time guarding them individually in the second half, guarding the post and, when they needed big shots, I really believe they made every one of them."

That's pretty much the way ASU coach Herb Sendek saw it, too.

"We have maintained all along that if we could somehow get our turnovers in the neighborhood of 12 or fewer, if we could convert better at the line, that would put us in a much better position to be competitive and this afternoon both of those happened," Sendek said. "More than anything else, our guys made plays."

Of all of those plays, the one that may have hurt the Wildcats the most was Gilling's final three-pointer, giving ASU an 81-77 lead with 57 seconds left.

Gilling was 5 of 6 from three-point range, hitting at an even higher percentage than UA's Brendon Lavender, who hit 3 of 4 three-pointers in each half to total 18 points.

"He was a hot hand," Hill said of Gilling. "He got himself open. At the end of the game he made a great shot, a contested shot and it put a cushion on their lead."

UA cut it to 81-80 when Fogg made a three-point play with 51 seconds left but Fogg and guard Josiah Turner missed shots in the final seconds while ASU made all six of its final free throws.

The Wildcats were able to compensate for their equally porous defense in the first half, when they went on an 8-2 run to break free from a 36-36 tie and lead 44-38 at the half. But this time, especially after ASU went on a 7-0 run in the first 86 seconds after halftime, it wasn't going to happen.

UA's early-half struggles have been a sore point all season and, when added to its unusual troubles on defense Sunday, the Wildcats couldn't come back this time.

"We have some shortcomings we've been dealing with since November and we've found a way, really, over the last six weeks to not mask them but be a better team," Miller said. "Today, you could make the case that was one of our best offensive performances. But we gave up 87 points."

NIT at McKale

If Arizona is invited to the NIT and earns one of its top four seeds, the Wildcats would have the option to host a first-round game on Tuesday, March 13, or Wednesday, March 14.

UA associate AD Suzy Mason said Sunday that the Wildcats have submitted a bid to host any NIT games, with McKale Center available for all NIT dates except March 16 because of a UA gymnastics meet.

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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