After winning its opening five games by an average margin of 24 points, Arizona was faced with true adversity for the first time Tuesday night in an ugly but reassuring 63-55 victory over Southern Miss.
Faced against a team with an unfamiliar zone defense, Arizona came out of the gates frigid from everywhere on the court, shooting just 35% in the first half and committing 27 total turnovers.
“In the first half,” said coach Sean Miller, “we had the deer in the headlights look of they’re not supposed to play this way and it didn’t feel right. It wasn’t a matchup zone but they have a real identity with how they do it.”
But while the zone frustrated Miller and the Cats into playing careless basketball at times, the coach’s biggest takeaway was that Arizona left the McKale Center with a hard fought victory. “To be able to win and have those turnovers, that’s a completely different story.”
Mark Lyons, arguably Arizona’s most dependent shooter, was perhaps the most dazed by Southern Miss’ defense and as a result went 0-7 from the field. Co-leading scorer Solomon Hill was also contained for the majority of the game, but hit the dagger three pointer with a few minutes remaining in a tightly contested second half.
With Lyons, Hill and the Arizona freshman big men all stymied, it was sophomore Nick Johnson who stepped up and put together a career-high 23 points.
Following a freshman season filled with inconsistent performances, the Arizona native has developed the confidence required to make the transition from contributor to star. Of course, Johnson was quick to turn the attention back to his teammates when asked how he gained this new found tenacity. “I’d like to think it’s the guys around me,” he said.
Kevin Parrom also came up big for Arizona. In one sequence with time winding down in the second half, he grabbed a Lyons missed three pointer and muscled his way through the paint before gently laying the ball off the backboard into the netting. It not only gave Arizona a crucial basket but it seemed to inspire his teammates, who looked rather flat and lethargic for much of the game.
And while Miller will likely make practice a bit more entertaining leading up to the Cats’ matchup with Clemson on Saturday, battling through adversity and overcoming an emotional and mental hump was something that needed to be experienced by the freshmen.
Kaleb Tarczewski, for example, had yet to feel the adrenaline of a down-to-the-wire game. Limited to seven points and pressured into five turnovers, the center said that the close win “allows us to have a little more confidence if we’re in a game situation in the future.”
Indeed, it was an eye-opening 40 minutes of play that reminded Arizona it is not invincible but also provided consolation that on a night when turnovers are of abundance and shots are fall from the shot-makers, the Cats have too much depth, talent, and poise to give in to defeat without putting up a battle.