At the very least – win or lose – Arizona went into the XL Center in Connecticut thinking it would come away with a good experience for what’s ahead. It’s a great environment for a young team still looking to find its footing.
Win or lose, it would be better for it.
To its credit, Arizona got a XL – extra-large – performance from everyone in the 76-72 win in what was considered its first true road game. Every player who played scored, with sophomore Brandon Randolph leading the way with 20 points, including nine from the free throw line.
Chase Jeter had yet another solid performance, scoring 14 points and grabbing seven rebounds. Dylan Smith and Ryan Luther each had 10 points to give Arizona an important road win in what are usually tough circumstances, traveling two time zones under tough trip and road conditions.
“It’s a heck of a feeling for our basketball team,” said UA assistant coach Mark Phelps on the team’s postgame radio show. “It’s a great win for our program. It really builds momentum moving forward for the Wildcats.
But what it all does is help develop team toughness for down the road. Arizona, 6-2, returns home to face Utah State on Thursday and goes to Alabama next weekend.
“We beat a program we respect a lot in front of a great crowd,” Arizona coach Sean Miller told reporters after the game. “I’m incredibly proud of our guys.”
The Cats did it by getting the lead early and holding on late, as it failed to score a field goal in the final six-plus minutes but hit 12 of 13 free throws down the stretch for what would seem to be a character-building win. It went 19 of 22 from the line in the game.
“We did the things we needed to do to get the win,” Phelps said.
Arizona’s best stretch – and perhaps its game-saving period – was when it was able to stretch its lead to 62-54 with a handful of minutes remaining after Brandon Williams hit a lay up came back and made a great defensive play and then Randolph followed with another layup. Every point mattered down the stretch and it was that cushion that proved to be crucial.
Particularly because UA shot poorly from the 3-point line, hitting just 3 of 17 shots.
But UA’s defense was at its season best, keeping the Huskies silent for much of the crucial second half despite the urging of the crowd. Yes, UConn shot 48 percent from the floor, but it didn’t matter down the stretch.
“During the game I’m thinking about how we are playing defense,” Phelps said, “and I’m encouraged. I’m up beat. We’re competing. I kept looking up at the percentages and they were like at 51 percent (shooting). I don’t know how to explain it but I felt we competed. They made some tough shots.
“Our defense contributed to their turnovers (so) it wasn’t all about field goal percentage.”
It was about Smith having a better-than-usual game in hitting three of six shots for his 10 points after struggling this season. It was about Luther doing the same with his 10 points too after struggling lately. And it was about UA scoring 42 points near the basket.
“We’re at our best when we get into the paint,” Phelps said. “(What) a Captain Obvious statement that is. It is a concerted effort. We believe in Chase Jeter; we believe in our guards and their ability to get make plays and get in the paint. We’re not shooting a great percentage from three right now, so it would behoove us to get some twos as well.”