LAHAINA, Hawaii -- For their second Maui Invitational game in a row, Arizona flirted with an upset of a Top 10 team well into the second half.
For the second game in a row, a 73-57 loss to Auburn, the Wildcats also saw how quickly a Top 10 team can turn things upside down.
Forced to play both No. 3 Gonzaga and No. 8 Auburn after beating Iowa State in a first-round game on Monday, the Wildcats watched a 13-point second-half lead over Gonzaga turn into a 17-point loss on Tuesday.
Then in the third-place game on Wednesday, the Wildcats pulled Auburn into a second-half tie early in the second half and trailed by just two points with 10 minutes to go… before watching the game turn into an Auburn dunk exhibition.
“Tonight was very similar,” UA coach Sean Miller said. “I think right around the eight-minute mark it was a game that could have gone either way if we play well down the stretch. But we didn’t. We didn’t have enough in either game and we were obviously playing against two really, really talented teams, well-coached teams and experienced groups as well.”
In other words, the Wildcats just aren’t there at this point, not after losing all five starters and scrambling to put together a competitive team this season.
Asked if playing two top 10 teams in a row was maybe too much to ask at this point in his retooled team's season, Miller said “evidently so." But he also said the Wildcats played some “really good basketball” in stretches against both Gonzaga and Auburn.
There just weren’t enough good stretches. Arizona had problems handling the ball especially in the first half, and allowed Auburn to shoot 69.6 percent in the second half. After UA pulled to within a 50-48 Auburn lead, the Tigers went on an 16-3 run to take control of the game.
“Tonight our best basketball was (the first) eight to 10 minutes in the second half,” Miller said. “But we also played some great defense and we really held them in check for 24-26 minutes. And then they finished. But that’s what they do.”
Brandon Randolph led UA with 18 points and five rebounds while Justin Coleman had 16 points and five assists. Totaling 62 points over the three-game tournament, Coleman made the all-tournament team along with Auburn’s Jared Harper, Zach Norvell Jr. and Rui Hachimura of Gonzaga, and RJ Barrett and Tre Jones of Duke.
“He was outstanding,” Miller said of Coleman. “If he didn’t play the way he played, I’m not sure where we would have been in any of the games.”
Trailing 28-22 at halftime, the Wildcats tied the game at 31 just 84 seconds into the second half by hitting 3 of 3 3-pointers, two from Randolph and another from Williams. Arizona had a chance to go ahead when Williams broke free for a layup but he missed and Auburn quickly took advantage: Auburn’s Bryce Brown hit a 3-pointer on the other end while Chuma Okeke later scored inside to put the Tigers up by five.
It was a similar pattern to the Wildcats’ loss to Gonzaga, when the Wildcats led by 13 points early in the second half before the game slid quickly in the Zags’ favor.
“I think one of the things we need to work on is not getting too excited with good things do happen and kind of carrying that same fight to the end of the game,” said UA center Chase Jeter, who had 14 points and five rebounds. “The biggest thing we need to learn is that there’s 40 minutes in a game.”
However, the Wildcats weren’t getting enough from their bench to sustain a 40-minute effort, while starters Ryan Luther (0 for 3) and Brandon Williams (2 for 7) had rough shooting games. Auburn’s bench outscored UA’s bench 33-4 after the Wildcats’ reserves scored just nine of UA’s 74 points against Gonzaga.
“That’s the key to our success, when we go to the bench and we don’t drop off,” Auburn coach Bruce Pearl said.
For Arizona, Emmanuel Akot was just 1 for 3 off the bench, missing his only 3-pointer, while reserve guard Dylan Smith missed all three 3s he took. Alex Barcello and Devonaire Doutrive did not score in brief appearances.
“We need to get a couple players who aren’t starting the game, our bench, to help us, contribute,” Miller said.
With Coleman, Randolph and Jeter doing the bulk of the offensive work, the Wildcats still managed to keep the game within mostly within two possessions until the final nine minutes, with 3-pointers from Coleman helping keep the Wildcats close midway through the half.
Coleman hit three 3s within two minutes to pull UA within two, 50-48, with 10:14 left. But that was the last of it. Auburn then began its game-sealing run by getting an inside basket and an emphatic dunk from Malik Dunbar, the dunk coming off a turnover from Ira Lee.
In all, Auburn scored 24 points off 19 UA turnovers while UA's defense also wore down, allowing the Tigers to shoot 69.6 percent in the second half, many of them dunks. In the first half, the Tigers scored 13 points off 13 Arizona turnovers to take a 28-22 halftime lead.
“Auburn, they turn you over, that’s what their defense does,” Miller said. “When you play them you have to dribble the ball, you have to drive it. They don’t let you play a certain way and you have to be able to adjust.”
Five of UA’s first-half turnovers were a result of offensive fouls, and that trend started right away. Williams was whistled for an offensive foul just 12 seconds into the game and Coleman had the same fate a minute later. The Wildcats had seven turnovers over the first eight minutes of the half, helping Auburn to take a 14-5 lead.
After Arizona cut Auburn's lead to just 24-22 with 3:31 left in the game, the same thing happened all over: Randolph and Williams were both whistled for offensive fouls in the last 48 seconds of the half, prompting UA fans to boo the officials heading into halftime. Miller also appeared displeased.
Arizona had nine turnovers after the first 11 minutes, with the Tigers scoring 10 points off them that more than gave them a 19-13 lead at that point. Auburn then expanded its lead to 24-14 on an alley-oop dunk from Okeke with 7:02 left.
The Wildcats battled back to pull within two points, 24-22, with 3:31 left in the half after Coleman assisted Akot as he drove the baseline for a layup, then came back to hit a 12-foot jumper.
Playing with a bandage over his right eye, Jeter led the Wildcats in the first half with nine points and four rebounds. Coleman had seven points while making 3 of 4 field goals.
The loss dropped the Wildcats to 4-2 entering a week off before they resume play on Nov. 29 against Georgia Southern. Auburn improved to 5-1.