Arizona Basketball

Inspired and determined, Arizona takes control of Pac-12

And, well, that’s how it is to play inspiring basketball when it matters. Arizona did it and it took a poor performance on Thursday night to make it happen.

Whatever it takes to motivate, right?

Here’s another: “We knew how important this game was,” said Dusan Ristic, who had yet another great game with 16 points and 11 rebounds in Arizona’s 81-67 win over visiting Southern California.

What it all means is Arizona is now 20-6 overall and 10-3 in the Pac-12 Conference and two games up on its nearest competitors (USC and UCLA).

Rawle Alkins has a 20-point night in a big Arizona win. (Photo courtesy Arizona Athletics)

“We can’t control that,” Miller said when asked how it felt to be two games up. “All we can control is tomorrow and the next day and having a focused approach, continuing to develop our team and be the best team we can be.”

Clearly, it’s not the time to panic. And, well, Arizona didn’t after what seemed like a game where everyone thought the sky was falling after Thursday’s uninspiring effort but games like that do that.

“Sometimes a loss can teach you some valuable lessons,” Miller said. “I really feel like everyone who played tonight learned from that experience. We can’t control what other teams do but we can certainly control our readiness and our attitude and our focus.”

He added he has a confident group. No doubt it is talented.

Saturday what they showed was totally different compared to Thursday.

From the jump, Arizona showed what was capable of with all those talented players. It used its seldom-used transition game to make it look like a potential Final Four team and even the talented USC team couldn’t keep up for moments. It did make me wonder why it did not play like this all the time given the horses.

“Arizona played exceptionally well offensively,” USC coach Andy Enfield said. “They make a lot of threes and jump shots from the mid-range area. (Rawle) Alkins making four 3s and (Allonzo) Trier making three 3s and then you look at the two 7-footers. They are extremely challenging to guard because they have weapons at every position.”

This is how Arizona was expected to play all season, but as Miller pointed out every team goes through some funks during the season. Arizona has gone through two – one at the beginning of the season – and another that may have just passed as it avoided another three-game losing streak.

Instead, Arizona had “one of our best performances of the season” in beating a very good team in USC, a team that’s talented and has all the parts, Miller said.

“What makes this sweeter than most is that it’s not easy to pick yourself off the matt when losing a game at McKale. It’s not a good feeling,” Miller said.

What is a good feeling is seeing Alkins return to last year’s form, after coming off a not-so-good performance on Thursday. He went 7 for 12 from the floor, including 4 for seven from beyond the 3-point line. He had a game-high 20 points.

Ristic said Alkins brings the team “some kind of toughness” when he plays well and it rubs off on the team.

“There’s no secret that I’ve been struggling the last two weeks,” said Alkins, who had missed a couple of games with soreness on his right foot. “I’ve been putting in extra work in the gym. I just came up.”

And he came through.

“To see him come out with that confidence, it was a great feeling,” Miller said. “I feel good about how we responded and how our season right now, especially the regular season, is (with) just three weeks (left). Hopefully we can hit our stride and build off tonight’s performance.”

Arizona continues to ride the hot hand of senior Ristic, who was all over the court. He even had two blocked shots, although he was only credited for one. He even suffered a potential black eye after Chimezie Metu hit him in the eye.

“He’s becoming an All-Conference player,” Miller said. “Statistically, there’s no denying that. He does it game in and game out.”

But the one who makes everything and everyone go – not Trier or Alkins – Miller said is Deandre Ayton, his 7-foot wonder who, too, played more inspired on Thursday. In fact, Miller said, it was Ayton who may have been the most upset about Thursday’s loss than anyone.

“This team goes as Deandre goes,” Miller said. “His defense sets the tone for a lot. You have to realize he’s 7-foot, 260 pounds.”

Miller realized it would be best for Ayton to play one person on defense instead of bouncing him around to play multiple big guys. Miller realized it’s too tough to Ayton.

“He is so gifted,” Miller said. “When he’s playing like that, with energy, it’s not his shot-blocking it’s his quick movement away from the basket and his size. He set the tone. Our defense was night and day. Even when they scored they earned it.”

As Ristic, apparently the team’s wise old sage said “this is the example of how we need to go from here.”

At least it’s in the right direction.

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