His face told the story to the question: was Arizona’s win over Tennessee the best one of the season?
Tommy Lloyd’s eyes widened and, well, probably thought it was too early for all that.
But in these precincts, Arizona’s 75-70 hard-fought win was clearly better than beating Creighton or Indiana. It was Arizona’s fourth win against ranked opponents this season.
Arizona had to switch gears by playing tough, methodical and slower. It was what the NCAA tournament is all about. What does it matter in December?
Only that it can switch gears and survive. Arizona did just that as it moved to ?? with about a third of the season behind it.
““It was a great win, but you know what the biggest game is?” Lloyd said. “The next one. That’s how we’re taking it. Hey, we have a Montana State team coming here that might be as good as any of these guarantee-type games we played all year, and we play them in less than 48 hours. So we got to grow as a group, I’m not just saying that. Our competitive maturity needs to be at a high level, we have two more games before Christmas. Let’s knock them out one by one, if you find a way to do that, you had a heck of a preseason.”
Every game is a season. And on Saturday night – in the most intense game of the year – Arizona got through it. But realistically, Montana State isn’t Tennessee. Few teams left on the schedule are Tennessee. Maybe UCLA. But who else?
What happened Saturday was a good, um, great sign if you are an Arizona fan. Arizona got through it. Barely, but it got through it.
It was physical.
Got through the stress.
Survived a not-so-stellar performance from Kerr Kriisa.
And it hit its free throws.
Oh, those free throws. Arizona took advantage of Tennessee’s “handsy” approach and got to the line 27 times, hitting 24 of them. Conversely, Tennessee shot just 10 free throws, hitting eight.
Arizona needed every one of those free throws.
“I knew it was going to be a way we might be able to score, if we can get in the bonus, and then stay aggressive offensively with a ton of foul pressure on them,” Lloyd said. “You pound the ball inside to those bigs (Oumar Ballo, Azuolas Tubelis), you drive closeouts, I mean it’s hard to play against.”
The best part of it all was Ballo – a 50 percent shooter from the free throw line this season – went 6 for 7 from the line. Every time he gets to the line, the fans hold their collective breath.
“It was great. I tell you guys how happy I am because we won, but hey, we’re at the middle of a journey, but there’s not a lot of time to reflect,” Lloyd said. “But to see him step up and hit two big free throws at the end of the game, it gives us confidence, because we need him on the floor defensively at the end of the game. We needed a rebound at the end of the game. When you close out those games, it’s a luxury when your best defensive players and rebounders can also (hit free throws).”
Free throws aside, what Saturday proved was Arizona could muck it up – or have someone muck it up – and survive.
Arizona shot just 42 percent.
Were outscored 34-30 in the paint.
And had zero – no typo – points from a bench that last game had 51.
Then again, Texas A&M Corpus Christi is no Tennessee. It’s the Tennessee’s Arizona will be facing in the NCAA tournament not the Corpus Christi’s.
Arizona fell well short of its average of 92 points a game and 54 percent shooting, but …
“I think it just shows our versatility,” said Pelle Larsson. “Obviously we want to run and score a lot of points. Where were we at, 75? That’s alright for college, but we want to be in the 90s, that’s our goal. We always want to get up and down, and I think a lot of teams are making adjustments and so are we.”
It’s a sign of growth. Or, you do what you need to do to get a win. Arizona did exactly that.
Then came, as one of the reporters called it, the post-game kerfuffle, one where Courtney Ramey made his way to the Tennessee area at the game’s end, only to be pushed away before the two teams met at half court.
“Oh, I was just having a little fun,” Ramey said.
A little too much fun. Arizona just needs to win – any way – and move on.