ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Nobody was going anywhere soon in the snow-packed streets outside the Crisler Center on Saturday, and several hundred giddy Arizona Wildcats fans didn’t want to anyway.
An hour after Arizona grittily came back to beat Michigan 72-70 Saturday, clenching its grip on the nation’s No. 1 ranking even tighter, its fans were still packing the corridor leading to the Wildcats’ bus, waving signs and yelling.
“I love you, Sean Miller!” said one grown man.
Eventually, the party began to break up and just about the last guy out was the UA coach himself, making his way up the ramp to the bus with a content smile — but not a hint of surprise.
His Wildcats had come nearly across the country again for the second time in just over two weeks and knocked off a well-regarded opponent. But more so than during UA’s 72-66 win over Duke on Nov. 29, this was a real road game against last season’s national runner-up. It was on national television and at 10 in the morning Arizona time.
It was the kind of game they could have easily lost and nobody would have been surprised. In fact, the game opened as a
pick ’em in Las Vegas sportsbooks but moved to favoring the Wolverines by two points, suggesting the sentiment was clearly against the Wildcats.
“I don’t know what other people think,” Miller said as he headed outside. “I think we’re a good team.”
Yeah. A good team. Maybe the best team in college basketball, certainly the team with the best résumé at this early juncture of the season, and definitely not the kind of team that shies away from bad weather, an early start, long travel times and early wake-up calls.
“We were ready,” said guard Nick Johnson, who iced the win with six free throws in the final 24 seconds. “Coming in last night, we put our film to rest, and had a 6 o’clock wake-up time, our time. (Playing) the San Diego State game, Drexel game, Duke game was really big for our young guys to get their feet wet with road environments and it worked out.”
So even though the Wildcats trailed by nine at halftime and failed to break through after cutting the Wolverines’ lead to three points or less on six different occasions in the second half, there was never a sense of panic.
They just kept rebounding, collecting 17 offensive rebounds and out-rebounding Michigan 37-24 overall. They kept going inside to help Brandon Ashley pick up a team-high 18 points and Kaleb Tarczewski another 14 points.
They also successfully sicced Aaron Gordon on Michigan’s Glenn Robinson III for the second half. Robinson had 16 points on 7-for-7 shooting in the first half but just four points in the second.
“Glenn was heating up in the first half so I took it upon myself to play defense,” said Gordon, in typical matter-of-fact fashion.
So in the end it didn’t end up mattering that forward Rondae Hollis-Jefferson struggled with fouls, and Tarczewski sprained his right ankle late in the game.
Arizona just kept going.
“We did a great job of responding,” point guard T.J. McConnell said. In late huddles “We said, ‘This game’s not over. We’ve gotta fight back and when we get the lead we gotta hold it.’ ”
So they did, just barely. Hollis-Jefferson gave UA its first lead since the first five minutes of the game when he drove inside for an eventual three-point play with 2:32 to go.
His free throw made it 63-62, and while the teams twice traded leads over the next two minutes, after McConnell rebounded his own miss with 42 seconds, it was soon over for the Wolverines.
After Johnson drew a foul from Mitch McGary with 24 seconds left, Michigan never led again.
Johnson hit both free throws, then, after Michigan’s Nik Stauskas missed and the teams tangled for the ball, Arizona received the ball on the possession arrow. Johnson was fouled again, hitting two more free throws with 9.1 seconds to give UA a 69-66 lead.
“Honestly, the first two I had to really concentrate on,” Johnson said. “After I made those, I knew I would make the next two, four. I just wanted to knock down the first one and get my rhythm at the line.”
Johnson hit another two to give Arizona a five-point lead with seven seconds, and while Michigan’s Spike Albrecht later hit a three-pointer to pull the Wolverines within 71-70, Arizona managed to get the ball in Gabe York’s hands on the ensuing inbound pass.
York was fouled with 1.4 seconds left and made just the first of two free throws, likely making it tougher for the Wolverines to heave it off the rebound instead of an inbounds pass. But Miller said he didn’t ask York to miss the second one purposely for that reason.
He didn’t really need to worry about it. He knew what he had. He knew what the Wildcats did.
He knew it was over.
“I was going for the points,” Miller said. “It ended up working out. Either way, in that situation, we would have been a heavy favorite.”