Arizona coach men’s basketball coach Tommy Lloyd said he “was so happy for the guys in the program” given what they’ve been through over time.
A coaching change.
An NCAA investigation.
And a trip that was more like planes, no trains and Uber automobiles just Friday.
The Wildcats have been able to overcome all of it and are now 9-0 after beating Illinois 83-79 in Champaign, Illinois.
“They are a great group of guys and special things are happening for them,” Lloyd said on his postgame radio show on Saturday afternoon. “And they deserve it.”
It’s likely now Arizona, which moved atop the NET Ranks this week, will continue to move up in the Associated Press polls, likely in the top eight after Saturday’s impressive win.
“The fans (in Illinois) came for blood … and we were blooded, but we were able to be the last man standing,” he said, with a chuckle. “I’m super proud.”
As he should be. He’s riding – and directing – a team that was picked to finish fourth in the Pac-12 this season and now has the college basketball know-it-alls buzzing on Arizona.
Saturday’s physical, fast and frenzied win on the road will just fuel Arizona’s fire.
Arizona jumped out early, fell back in the middle (after that Illinois 19-0 run) then came roaring back soon after and held on late.
The announcers – and Lloyd – compared it to a heavyweight fight – and more.
“Bare knuckle boxing,” Lloyd said. “It was knock down drag out. We knew it was going to be.”
This was Arizona basketball from the Lute Olson era all over again. Those who remember know. Heck, I’m sure somewhere in a cushy seat in heaven Olson is smiling with approval.
This was Michael Wright fighting for rebounds. This was Sean Elliott coming back in the form or Bennedict Mathurin and scoring bigtime baskets. This was Richard Jefferson getting in the lane and disrupting ala Dalen Terry. This was Steve Kerr hitting key shots (in the form or Kerr Kriisa). Of course, there was more but you get the picture.
Arizona was able to morph into a team it had to be in the moment. Tough, versatile and with finesse.
“We’re built for those,” Lloyd said, referring to tough and hard-fought games. “We get a little experience in those, and I think it’s really going to help us and make us better.”
How can it not? These are measuring-stick games before the conference season begins. And, well, Arizona measured up.
Arizona got punched and, well, punched back. Big time.
How many teams come back from a 19-point run by an opponent? Rarely happens.
This version of Arizona made it happen … welcome to the 2021-22 season where anything is possible.
It’ll come on defense as it did Saturday. And some on-point offense (um, Kriisa, specifically).
In the key second half, UA held Illinois to 3 for 15 from inside the 3-point arc.
“We gotta do a better job on (defending) the 3s but there is a little bit of give and take with that,” Lloyd said.
Arizona stopped Kofi Cockburn in the first half but couldn’t stop him in the second. Then there were guards Alfonso Plummer and Trent Frazier, who went off for 27 points and 25 points respectively.
“The twos (Cockburn) made I don’t know what you can do (to prevent them),’ Lloyd said. “It’s tough. (But we had) great defense but that’s how you win these games.”
Mathurin may have been the star with 30 points, but it was Kriisa who kept Arizona’s blood and game flowing. He had 19 points, 17 in the second half to keep Arizona close and in the game. He hit threes like the player he was named for (Steve Kerr) and made floaters (like Michael Dickerson used to).
Oh, the visions.
“Amazing,” Lloyd said, of Kriisa. “I remember when I first got the job, and I was watching him shoot layups and floaters and he couldn’t make one.
“He didn’t make them last year. I just said, ‘it’s going to take some time.’ Just something you gotta work on it. We gotta work on a plan and I’ll give you some ideas. You gotta make your own package. He’s homed in on it.”
And now, Arizona is 9-0.