Arizona-Cal postgame: On McConnell, Johnson and the birthday boy

2014-02-27T01:09:00Z 2014-02-27T13:25:56Z Arizona-Cal postgame: On McConnell, Johnson and the birthday boyBruce Pascoe Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star

T.J. McConnell scored 17 points at ASU on Feb. 14, with five rebounds, a steal and a block.

Of course, those aren’t the numbers he remembers most. These are: Six turnovers and only two assists.

Since then, McConnell has had 22 assists to only one turnover, a ball he let get away on the Wildcats’ final possession of their 87-59 win over California.

“After ASU, I kind of took it personally,” McConnell said. “Six turnovers is really bad for a point guard. Me and coach (Sean) Miller talked, and I took it upon myself to say ‘I gotta make better decisions and take care of the ball’ and credit to my teammates – they’re moving well without the ball and they’re the ones making all the shots. I give them all the credit.”

Miller “kind of told me to settle down. There were a few bad decisions here and there, but he said I have to move on and I think me and my teammates did a great job of that.”

McConnell also had 13 points on 6-for-10 shooting with three steals, continuing his expanded offensive role he’s had since Brandon Ashley was lost for the season on Feb. 1.

“T.J., he’s a worker,” Miller said. “He’s tireless in his ability to try to do what we want him to do. He does it on offense and he does it on defense. The more he’s played in games, the more that he practices, he’s been here for two years now and you can see he’s instinctive. He’s always in the right place at the right time and with his energy level, his quickness and his anticipation -- he has a lot of great qualities that make him a terrific defender.”


Kaleb Tarczewski celebrated his 21st birthday Wednesday by collecting 16 points, shooting 7-for-9 from the field, including two midrange jumpers.

“He’s a smart player, No. 1, and he’s more sure of himself in the post,” Miller said. “With a lot of his hard work this offseason, it took him a while to take a 10-12 footer but he’s added that to what he does.

“It’s a lot easier for a post player when you can take an open 10 or 12 footer. You don’t always have to be in a crowd or depend on a teammate. He’s a very smart and excellent defensive player.

“He’s rebounding the ball well for us. Tonight he didn’t rebound as well as he has been but 16 points on 7-for-9 shooting -- he got the job done. And part of what Kaleb is, he puts fouls on the other team when we get him the ball, too, so his value is really big.”

Tarczewski said he continues to become more comfortable.

“And at the same time the team’s doing a great job of getting me the ball in scoring position,” Tarczewski said. “That obviously makes it a lot easier on me, catching the ball a little deeper and knowing everyone has confidence in me.”


Nick Johnson, meanwhile, led the Wildcats on both end of the floor for the third straight game, with 22 points, five assists, a block and a steal.

The block was of a layup by Cal’s Justin Cobbs, which promptly turned into a rebound by Tarczewski and eventually a dunk by Rondae Hollis-Jefferson.

Johnson was asked how that play ranked in UA’s season of dunks.

“It’s up there,” Johnson said. “I thought he was going to dunk on me but he laid it up at the last second which allowed me to block it. Rondae’s been playing great on the floor and he finished.”


UA’s defense held its opponent to less than 31 percent from three-point range for the third straight game, and limited Utah, Colorado and Cal to a combined 40 percent overall from the field in those games.

“I just feel like it’s more consistent,” Miller said of UA’s defense. “We broke down in a four-minute segment in the second half, where you saw them getting fast pushes in transition. If you call a timeout, that doesn’t always solve the problem but once we regrouped, we got back to who we are and all of a sudden we cut their transition out. That’s really what you want to see – that when we’re not perfect, we can get back on track and get it going.

“We’re an outstanding defensive team. If you look at our numbers and you judge them across the country, you can make the argument that we’re certainly one of the best defensive teams in the country. We take a lot of pride in that. As our offense gets better, we can’t lose the fact that our defense has been there since Day 1. If we can keep our defense where it’s been and continue to add offensively that’s our big upside that we have.”


The icing on Wednesday’s win for the Wildcats might have been that Aaron Gordon was 5 for 6 from the free throw line. That’s the best he’s been since he hit 6 of 7 against Drexel back on Nov. 27 in New York.

“I know you guys don’t always believe me when I tell you he’s a better free throw shooter in practice, but he is. He’s better,” Miller said. “He might not be an 80-percent free throw shooter but he’s far from the percentage that he has. I hope that a game like this can give him some confidence as well because we all know we’re going to need everything we can get moving forward and, with him shooting free throws as he makes a higher percentage, our offense gets better. If nothing else changes, our offense gets better just because he’ll put more points on the board.”


Already looking like a lot will be on the line Sunday against Stanford. The Wildcats can clinch a share of the Pac-12 title with a win (or an outright title if UCLA loses before then) and finish their home schedule unbeaten.

“It would mean a lot,” Miller said of winning all UA’s home games. “I know when Derrick Williams was here (in 2010-11) we ran the table. It’s not easy to do but we have one game to try to do it.

“It would be foolish for us to talk about that with our team. It’s about getting ready for Stanford and if we’re able to do that it would be an accomplishment that we would be really proud of.”


Our full coverage Thursday: A game story, sidebar, notes, Greg Hansen's column and a photo gallery.

Here's the official box score.


Elsewhere in the Pac-12, ASU may have picked up some confidence by beating Stanford.


Another conflict on today's Pac-12 schedule: Both Oregon at UCLA (ESPN2) and OSU at USC (FS1) will be played at 9 p.m.

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