Arizona will look for answers under the Christmas tree after suffering its second consecutive loss in as many weekends with a 70-67 defeat against the St. John’s Red Storm tonight at San Francisco.
The 16th-ranked Wildcats — defeated last Saturday at McKale Center by next week’s likely No. 1 team in the nation, Gonzaga — now have a two-week break until hosting ASU on Jan. 4 in the Pac-12 opener for both schools.
The Sun Devils (8-4) are also smarting from consecutive losses but they have a game at home Dec. 28 against Texas Southern to try to work out the kinks.
Here’s a look at Arizona’s final shot vs. St. John’s. Nico Mannion went with the floater but couldn’t get it to fall. pic.twitter.com/o9SAHaLiHM
Sean Miller‘s team had trouble early mastering St. John’s under coach Mike Anderson, who is a protege of Nolan Richardson’s “40 Minutes of Hell” fullcourt-pressure defense.
Miller cited a “lack of poise” and “lack of confidence at the beginning of the game” for being a difference in the outcome. He said Arizona’s 1 of 8 shooting from 3-point range, many too long from NBA range, was an example of the first half break downs.
The Wildcats (10-3) committed 13 turnovers (10 in the first half) with only 11 assists. Arizona made 39.6 percent of its shots, including 18.8 percent (3 of 16) from 3-point range. The Wildcats remained afloat thanks to 26-of-32 shooting from the free throw line.
Holy hell Nico Mannion. Unbelievable instincts pic.twitter.com/JZTTDAwBIF
Arizona has lost on three consecutive Saturdays this month against Baylor, Gonzaga and now St. John’s. The Wildcats made a combined 13 of 64 shots (20.3 percent) from 3-point range in those losses.
In each of those losses, Arizona threatened late after being down by double-digits in the second half. The Wildcats trailed by 18 points against Baylor and lost 63-58. They fell behind by 13 points with 1:28 left against Gonzaga and lost 84-80. They trailed by as many 16 points against St. John’s before rallying.
“We certainly gained more confidence as the game went on and we have to be that type of team for longer periods of time,” Miller said.
Zeke Nnaji carrying Arizona tonight pic.twitter.com/XNJcbq83De
The Red Storm (11-2) outscored Arizona 17-10 in points-off-turnovers, but that margin was 17-3 before the Wildcats’ late surge.
Arizona showed some life going on an 11-2 run to cut the lead to 63-59 with 4:52 left in regulation. All 11 of the points occurred on free throws, four by Nico Mannion.
Mannion’s steal, his third of the second half, and layup with 1:56 left cut the St. John’s lead to 65-64. It was Arizona’s first made field goal since Mannion made a jump shot with 8:28 remaining.
St. John’s gets a heck of a win over Arizona without Mustapha Heron. The Johnnies have now beaten two ranked teams: Arizona and West Virginia. Big East play is next and this league is so hard to figure. Will be interesting to see if St. John’s can get back to NCAA tourney.
After Rasheem Dunn made one of two free throws with 1:39 remaining, Max Hazzard nailed a 3-pointer to give Arizona a 67-66 lead. Nick Rutherford then drove the lane for a layup with 1:03 left to put St. John’s back ahead.
Mannion missed a 3-pointer with 30 seconds remaining but Josh Green grabbed the loose ball on the rebound. Miller called timeout and designed a play for Mannion to drive the lane similar to what he did with the game-winning shot against Pepperdine last month.
This time, Mannion’s shot banged off the rim and Greg Williams Jr. grabbed the rebound for St. John’s. Julian Champagnie made both free throws after he was fouled with .2 seconds left and Mannion could not get the shot off on time from three-quarters court at the buzzer.
Zeke Nnaji led the Wildcats with 24 points on 8-of-10 shooting from the field and free throw line and finished with 11 rebounds.
Arizona was outrebounded 40-35 despite St. John’s giving up size, according to Miller. The Wildcats tallied only one offensive rebound in the first half. They finished with six.
“At halftime, we were getting 7 percent of our misses,” Miller said. “The obvious advantage that we had was our size. I talked a lot about rebounding. … They’ll be one of the smaller teams we play all season long and yet they were the bigger, tougher team on the glass.
“They were getting 44 percent of their misses back at halftime and we were getting 7 percent. We had 10 turnovers at the half, and again, they were the better team.”
Sean Miller said he didn’t play Dylan Smith and Ira Lee in the second half because of performance. (Smith had 4 TOs and St. John’s had 7 ORs in first half). “We just went with the group that we thought would give us the best chance,” Miller said.
Mannion finished with 19 points but shot 6 of 15 from the field. In the losses to Baylor, Gonzaga and St. John’s, Mannion made 12 of 49 shots (24.5 percent).
Green also struggled with two made field goals, finishing with 11 points thanks to 6-of-6 shooting from the free throw line. He was 10 of 31 from the field in the three losses. Combined, he and Mannion were 22 of 80, only 27.5 percent, against Baylor, Gonzaga and St. John’s.
Arizona’s seniors Chase Jeter and Dylan Smith struggled against the Red Storm. Jeter mustered only five points and three rebounds in 24 minutes before fouling out. Smith did not play in the second half after going scoreless in 13 minutes in the first half with four turnovers.
Ira Lee also did not play after halftime after going scoreless with three rebounds in six minutes in the first half.
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ALLSPORTSTUCSON.com publisher, writer and editor Javier Morales is a former Arizona Press Club award winner. He is a former Arizona Daily Star beat reporter for the Arizona basketball team, including when the Wildcats won the 1996-97 NCAA title. He has also written articles for CollegeAD.com, Bleacher Report, Lindy’s Sports, TucsonCitizen.com, The Arizona Republic, Sporting News and Baseball America, among many other publications. He has also authored the book “The Highest Form of Living”, which is available at Amazon.