Arizona coach Sean Miller was smiling on the court as he witnessed his Arizona team play well against visiting Utah. He grinned a time or two in the post-game media session.
I saw both. Promise.
It was that kind of night for Miller & Company on Thursday in McKale Center. Smiles have been infrequent the last few weeks given UA had lost five of seven games. But, winning does that to teams looking for a good performance after two consecutive defeats under tough circumstances.
Arizona needed Thursday. It was some good ol’ soul cleansing through some soul searching.
Miller said he thought his team “was excellent” in the first half and in the second half, well, not so much. But he was “happy” with the performance given the difficulty of winning games in the Pac-12 these days.
He’ll take a 16-point win – 93-77 – and move on.
But what may have been the most telling about being “happy” with his team’s performance was its completeness in terms of going inside (and doing well) and going outside (and doing really well) all the while going fast at times (and looking good) and controlled (sometimes).
It may have been Arizona’s best game in, um well, some time.
“I believe that, no doubt,” Miller said. “Our 3-point shooting … the ball went in. It really did. Maybe because we created some shots.”
It really did in as much as UA went 15 for 29 from beyond the arc and looked great doing it. It was amplified when reserve guard Max Hazzard hit four of five treys in the first half and looked the part of a sharp-shooting veteran.
“Got some shots to go down, which was nice,” said Hazzard, who finished with a game-high 24 points. Teammate Zeke Nnaji also had 24 points. “I had a good time out there. My teammates were finding me.”
And finding him and finding him. He went 6 for 10 from beyond the 3-point line, finishing 7 for 11 from the floor.
His shot wasn’t exactly found. It’s been there for a while, but his time has been limited playing behind Nico Mannion and Josh Green. Thursday, it was Hazzard’s time as he went in at the first media timeout and, well, got hot.
“I’ve been doing this a long time, it’s my fifth year,” Hazzard said. “I’ve had bigtime nights. This is just one of them. I plan on doing it again.”
That will be up to Miller. But Miller came away impressed and pleased by Hazzard’s play.
“Max Hazzard was a big reason why (UA played well),” Miller said. “It’s great to see him shoot the basketball, like we see him shoot it a lot in practice and, you know, in fairness to Max it takes a little time to get comfortable. But my hope is that there are more moments, like the segment he had there both in the first half and in the second half.”
Again, time will tell, but Hazzard said he felt like this ol’ self, hitting long-range jumpers and being a big part in his team’s victory. He did it often at UC-Irvine through the years.
He said he was/is comfortable because the coaching staff believes in him as do his teammates and “obviously I believe in myself. It feels good to kind of get to accustomed to as well.”
It’s taken awhile, to get adjusted and to get some time. But it’s “a season for a reason” Hazzard said in terms of being a player who comes off the bench and fills a role.
Thursday night, he did it near perfection.
“He’s one of the best shooters I’ve seen since I’ve been here,” said teammate Dylan Smith, who, too, played well. “When he gets it going, he can ring off three, four 3s in a row. It’s always a big weapon to have at this level of basketball. We try to use him as best we can.”
It could mean more smiles for Miller … which of course would mean a win for Arizona.
UA was without senior center Chase Jeter, who sat out with back spasms. It’s not clear when he will return to the lineup. Stone Gettings replaced him in the starting lineup.
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