If it’s true styles make fights, well, Arizona was in a fight for its Pac-12 Tournament life on Thursday here at T-Mobile Arena.
In what many thought would be a walk in the park – heck, Arizona was a 15-point favorite – turned into a when-does-the-next-flight-leave scenario for probably 90 percent of the fans in the arena.
Methodical almost beat mayhem.
Arizona survived an 84-80 win to advance to face Colorado in Friday night’s semi-final game here. The Buffaloes defeated Oregon on Thursday afternoon.
Talk about elimination basketball, it got as dicey as one of Vegas’ high-wire acts.
Arizona struggled defensively with head coach Tommy Lloyd saying he had to go with a tough decision to not play Bennedict Mathurin in the final moments given the team needed a better defensive effort.
“I knew this game was going to be hard in these first games of these tournaments especially when you have a bye, they are like this,” said Lloyd.
As for the team’s defense, Lloyd said “(it) has been great all year and it has been far from perfect (but) we’ll get back and watch the film and ratchet it down and hopefully the ball will bounce our way a little bit tomorrow.”
It had to do some magic a day after Lloyd said Stanford had “pulled a rabbit out of their hat” versus Arizona State on Wednesday and had some momentum to play well on Thursday.
Stanford’s physical and slowed down Arizona just to make things uncomfortable.
“They played great and had a good plan,” Lloyd said. “A lot of times you can have a great plan, but you still have to make your shots. And they made their shots.”
Seemingly, every shot Stanford put up went in. Didn’t if feel that way? At least it did from Spenser Jones who went 12 for 18 to finish with a game-high 28 points. Stanford also went 11 for 20 from beyond the 3-point line, finishing 32 for 59 from the floor.
Defense was definitely concerning – or should be – for Lloyd & Co.
For Arizona and the victory, it was, um, an inside job. Lloyd turned to Christian Koloko to get the job done. His lanky center nearly matched Jones’ performance, going 10 for 12 to finish with a team-high 24 points.
“I’m just playing, taking what the defense gives me,” said Koloko in his usually humbling way.
Lloyd went a little further on the conference’s defensive player of the year who turned it on offensively. He said Koloko settled in and played a nice second half on the postgame broadcast, saying Arizona had “to play over the top” and get Koloko the ball.
“He made a lot of winning plays,” Lloyd added.
He spoke more about him in the postgame press conference, talking about how physical it was for everyone, including the big men.
“The game was really physical inside and when you’re a bigger guy going against a smaller guy the smaller guy might have advantages,” he said. “He had to battle. To go 10 of 12 with all that traffic in there it shows how far he’s come. He made some big free throws down the stretch too. I felt comfortable with our attack. I didn’t think offense was our issue for the most part. Christian being able to play into switches like that was a really important piece of the puzzle.”
What could be more of a puzzle is how Arizona moves forward without the possibility of Kerr Kriisa in the lineup. Lloyd said it was a sprained ankle but knew little else given it had just happened a few minutes earlier and with just a couple of minutes left in the victory.
“We have good players and we played without him earlier this year, and we were fine,” said Lloyd on the post-game show. “We will see what happens.”
Said Mathurin: “Kerr means a lot to this team, he’s a starting point guard. We play well when he’s here. Hopefully he’ll be back pretty soon because we need him.”
On Thursday, Arizona needed every last drop – basket – to get through it to get to 29 wins. No lead was safe, given Arizona’s biggest lead was only seven twice. There were 22 lead changes and four ties. Stanford limited UA to 10 fastbreak points and made life scary for most of the 40 minutes.
Stanford coach Jerod Haase said he thought Stanford executed his gameplan very well but couldn’t hit a couple of shots late.
“The idea was to be a physical team,” Haase said. “It’s our identity and our core values in our program is to be tough.”
Stanford embraced it; Arizona eventually got through it. In fact, it may have helped Arizona given it has played just three single-point victories (Illinois, Wichita State and Oregon) this season.
“We have a young team, so I think we need those kinds of games just to get ready for what’s next for us,” Koloko said. “I think we did a pretty good job executing the gameplan. Luckily, we won today. We have to prepare for tomorrow.”