LAHAINA, Hawaii — Three easy games at McKale Center told the Arizona Wildcats they could play a little defense and handle the ball pretty well, but there was one ingredient nobody could have possibly known about until Monday.
That is, they also have heart.
At least the Wildcats showed it during a 71-66 win over Iowa State in a first-round Maui Invitational game that they trailed by nine at halftime and by 10 with 11 minutes to go.
“I’m just proud of our guys. I feel like today just showed how we loved each other as brothers,” said senior guard Justin Coleman, who led the Wildcats in scoring with 18 points. “It just shows the connection we have as a team because we got out-rebounded, we got down 10, but it showed the effort and the togetherness we had through adversity to get back and win the game.”
The connection apparently starts at the top.
While Coleman scored his 18 points on 7-for-13 shooting, making 4 of 8 3-pointers, fellow co-captain Chase Jeter had 10 points and 12 rebounds, a much-needed inside presence against the smaller but notably physical Cyclones, who outrebounded the UA 40-34 but struggled with 14 turnovers and 16.7 percent 3-point shooting.
Arizona, 4-0, will face the winner of Monday’s late Gonzaga-Illinois game at 8:30 p.m. on ESPN, already having surpassed its dreary performance in their multi-team event last season, when they went 0-3 in the Battle 4 Atlantis.
“You come to this tournament, you don’t want to be the team that is 0-3 when they leave Maui,” UA coach Sean Miller said. “Every win here is a very hard one to get.”
That much became clear immediately inside before a packed crowd of about 2,000 fans, the majority of whom were pulling for the Cyclones and quite vocal about it. During some intense early possessions, Arizona’s defense helped the Wildcats take an early jump during a particularly hard-played initial four minutes, after which the UA led 8-4 while Iowa State went 2-7 from the field and had two turnovers.
Playing without four rotation players including standout guard Lindell Wigginton, the Cyclones missed their first nine 3-point attempts but kept the UA scoreless for nearly four minutes to jump ahead 15-14 after an eight-footer by Marial Shayok.
The Cyclones went on to take a 36-27 lead at halftime, and the Civic Center was thumping with energy. Iowa State held a halftime rebounding advantage of 24-16 and had outscored UA 24-10 in the paint.
What’s more, Arizona shot just 30 percent from the field in the first half, and was 2-14 from 3-point territory.
“I think initially the young guys on our team kind of got a little intimidated by the atmosphere,” Jeter said. “So going into the second half we had to kind of take a step back and know that we were going to be OK and not to let the crowd kind of take direction of the game.”
They tried to right away after halftime, though Iowa State initially held with them. The Wildcats went immediately to Ryan Luther for a 3-pointer and later cut it to within 43-37 on a 3 from Coleman.
The UA went 6 for 14 from 3-point range in the second half, a number that Iowa State coach Steve Prohm wasn’t too happy about after the Wildcats shot poorly from outside in the first half.
“It started really with the first possession of the half,” Prohm said. “We’re up nine, we’ve guarded down to the last two, three seconds on the shot clock and we help off the corner. Our rule is to stay at home, so we give Luther an open three there.
“We wanted to go under some ball screens, but the one time Tyrese (Haliburton) really went way under we gave Coleman a really good look and then he made a couple big 3s too. But that was the challenge in the second half, can we be as fundamentally sound defensively?”
Not quite. The Cyclones still managed to go ahead 54-44, when Nick Weiler-Babb hit a 3-pointer with 10:54 left, but they soon after fell off while Arizona’s defense and clutch play kicked in. The UA pulled into a 56-56 tie with 5:02 left when Coleman drove inside for a finger-roll layup and returned with a 3-pointer on the break to make it 63-60 with 1:49 to go.
With their jitters apparently well behind them , the Wildcats closed it out by hitting eight free throws in the final 39 seconds: Four from Brandon Williams and two each from Luther and Dylan Smith.
Even though he had a 2-for-11 shooting night and had the first two turnovers of his college career, Williams finished with six assists and 9-for-10 free-throw shooting.
Arizona hit 15 of 18 from the line overall, compared to Iowa State’s 10-for-13, and the five-point difference was the exact margin of victory.
“Each of these guys is in a brand-new role … (and with) some things as simple as free-throw shooting,” Miller said. “Alllonzo Trier, he’s one of the best free-throw shooters in late games that I’ve ever coached. You take it for granted in the three years that he was with us, late in the game and he made them 90-plus percent of the time.
“Well, tonight, who is going to be that player that you’re going to want to put on the foul line? You saw Brandon Williams as a freshman go 9-10 from the line.”
Noting that a “parade” was thrown when the Wildcats lost their Bahamas games last season, while playing without Rawle Alkins, Miller went out of his way afterward to note that Iowa State was missing several key players, too.
“They’re missing not only an all Big-12 performer (Wigginton), but a number of other players,” Miller said. “I think it’s to their credit that they’re as good of a team right now without them as they are. And when those guys get back, I would fully expect them to make a run and be in the NCAA tournament.
“So for us to beat a team that we really respect here in Maui and having these two guys (Coleman and Jeter) with us, I think really allows us to feel good.”