Arizona coach Tommy Lloyd found his sixth man – again. He found a new starter – again. And he found his one-two punch near the basket – again.
And because of it all, Arizona found its groove back after beating USC in convincing fashion 81-66 at McKale Center on Thursday night.
For how long that mojo stays is anyone’s guess. But for a night, Arizona had its best game of the season in a Pac-12 game. Arizona moves to 16-3 overall and 5-3 in the conference.
You could hear the collective, “whew” in McKale, a loud and proud place for the Wildcats to regroup after a couple of tough two weeks.
Lost … now found.
“Wish I got time to take a breath and celebrate (the win), but that’s not reality,” Lloyd said without prompting to begin his postgame press conference. “We got a great challenge ahead of us Saturday and we’re locked in.”
First the hors d’oeuvre to Saturday’s main course.
There was a little bit of Pelle Larsson, who reprised his role as last season’s best sixth man to score 15 points.
There was a dash – um, flash – of Courtney Ramey, who found his shooting touch again to finish with a team-high 16 points. He went 4 for 8 from the floor. He had been slumping lately.
“The ball’s been going in, that’s the biggest deference,” Ramey said. “When you shoot a lot of shots, shoot a lot of 3s, some are going to go in and some go out.”
There was another splash in Cedric Henderson, who returned to the starting lineup (replacing Larsson) to have 11 points.
“I just think he brought a lot of energy and just made plays early in the game, and it kind of helped the whole team,” Ramey said. “… It was good to see him getting going in his first Pac-12 start.”
Then there was the big bite from Arizona’s big men Azuolas Tubelis and Oumar Ballo, who returned to their dominating form. Tubelis had 15 points and 17 rebounds; Ballo, feeling nearly 100 percent healthy, 12 points and seven rebounds.
First, the switch from Larsson to Henderson, Lloyd said he discussed it with Larsson on Sunday and got the okay. So, he did it. Strange, but true.
“I just thought it was the right thing for the team,” Lloyd said. “Pelle Larsson gets a ton of credit. I mean, this wasn’t a reprimand or demotion. I just felt our bench needed something a little more consistent coming off of it, and he gives us some versatility playing at the 3 of the 4.
“And to be quite honest, our young big guys need a little bit more time. So now we’ll play small a little bit more, and Pelle gives us the versatility to do that.”
On Henderson, he liked what he received from him. He hadn’t been in the starting lineup since the first three games of the season while Ramey was out.
“Cedric’s been great, he hasn’t complained one time,” Lloyd said. “He’s had some really good games, he’s had some games that he probably wishes went a little better, or probably wish he got a few more opportunities. If this can help out both those guys (it will) ultimately help out the team. I felt like it was the right decision.”
Looked that way.
It also helped that Arizona jumped out to a big lead early – something that hadn’t always been the case in the three losses – and held on and extended its lead throughout the game. Arizona had a 21-point lead at one point.
Again, Arizona’s big men played a big part. Ballo, who was in the hospital a time or two just two weeks ago with what he said was a stomach virus, looked like his old self, save for a couple of misses that were once easy makes. He also had a technical foul.
As for Azuolas, he went after rebounds like his life depended on it. He had 17 of Arizona’s 43.
“It’s a 5-man job,” Lloyd said. “Rebounding is an every-man job.”
Azuolas made it his passion.
“Our rebounding numbers are good, but I don’t know if we’re a good rebounding team, if that makes sense,” Lloyd said. “Our plus-minus is good, the percentages are OK, but I just think our team has more potential. And when you look back at some of the times we’ve struggled, a little bit (has) been effort-based. That’s a common denominator for a lot of teams if you really dive in and evaluate the game, so we’re no different than anybody else. The better we rebound, the better chance we have to win.”
Can it do it again on Saturday when UCLA comes in with a No. 5 ranking and a 14-game win streak? UCLA survived a slight scare from Arizona State on Thursday night in Tempe.
What will it take to win on Saturday?
“We need to come out play our asses off,” Lloyd said. “It doesn’t get any more complicated than that. We’re playing a great team that has all the right pieces and is well-coached. It’s going to be real challenge.”
On to the main course. Enjoy your lunch it’s a noon start at McKale Center.