Where would Arizona be without James Akinjo? Heck, where would Arizona be without Azuolas Tubelis?
Worse off this season that’s for sure (more later).
Arizona’s season-long, one-two punch was at it again on Saturday afternoon.
Both showed up to, well, save the day against Washington. They turned what would have been a miserable senior day into a winning one after beating the Huskies 75-74 in McKale Center.
“I’m thrilled to win,” Arizona coach Sean Miller said. “I’m not relieved that we won. I’m more excited and happy that Azuolas was able to make that shot.”
In a game that was likely too close for comfort for Arizona – a 14-point favorite – Arizona pulled it off because of the late-game heroics of Akinjo and Tubelis.
It was Tubelis’ 18-foot two-pointer from the side with 5 seconds left that proved to be the difference in giving UA its 17th win of the season and 11th in the Pac-12.
Akinjo called it “money” after finding his teammate open with just seconds left.
On the final play, Akinjo said he improvised a bit and found Azuolas in the corner with his favorite and “most consistent shot … I knew it was money.”
It was the second memorable game this season where it went Akinjo to Azuolas for the winner. In beating ASU in January, Akinjo found Azuolas on what he said was an alley-oop pass for the last-second win.
“James found me again, so I need to make it,” said Tubelis. “I need to make those shots always.
“James is that point guard who can find you in the moments like this one.”
Fast forward to Saturday and UA won again on the combination of the two.
Akinjo said he’s being his usual aggressive self and Azuolas is “getting more comfortable” on the court, given that was his second double-double in recent games. He had 16 points and 15 rebounds.
Azuolas said he had to play well because it’s his mom’s birthday today, “so I needed to go hard and win the game.”
Hey, whatever works.
“I’m excited Azuolas made the shot, it was a good pass,” Miller said.
Miller added later: “Not a lot of freshmen get 16 points and 15 rebounds. If you look at his overall play the last six weeks … I think Azuolas is one of the conference’s best players.”
Miller said it’s now up to the coaches to make Azuolas a better defensive player and perhaps the entire team.
“But he’ll get better through maturity, growth and experience,” Miller said.
Arizona almost showed its lack of experience given how the final minutes played out. UA had a four-point-plus lead only to see it turn into a one-point deficit late, giving up the lead with less that 30 seconds left – for the first time since early in the game – only to regain it after Kerr Kriisa was able to get a charge call in his favor to set up UA’s final offensive move.
“Kerr, like TJ McConnell, has great instincts in terms of drawing charges,” Miller said. “And in making plays like that. That’s why he’s in the game.”
Still, it was Akinjo who kept the team going – again. He hit big shot after big shot but deferred to Tubelis on the final offensive play from the corner. He hit a bit three to keep UA close and get the eventual win. He finished with a career-high 26 points.
“I thought I played alright,” he said. “I definitely missed a lot of shots I should have made. On defense I broke down a few times, but I’ll build on it the best I can.”
Still, it was Akinjo who held the team together for most of the game and it was Azuolas who finished the Huskies off.
Miller went as far saying without Akinjo this year UA would be 7-18 overall and not 8-17.
Once again, Miller called Akinjo the team’s “heart and soul.”
“We might be 5-20, that’s how much he means to our team,” Miller said. “He dominated the game from our perspective. He’s learning how to be a true floor general. His learning to score and distribute …”
Something he did in the final seconds in Arizona’s win on Saturday.