Kerr Kriisa walked into Arizona’s postgame press conference right after Azuolas Tubelis and said, “No standing ovation for this guy?”
Um, there’s no cheering in the press box or, in this case, the press room. But still, it was enough to be amazed about. Tubelis sure did impress a packed McKale Center crowd and a national television audience with his near-record setting night as UA beat Oregon 91-75. Getting to 20 wins on the season never looked so good.
His 40 points were a career-high and just one point shy of the McKale Center record, set by the late, great Al Fleming (who just happened to be placed in the ring of honor on Thursday) who had 41 points and 11 rebounds in 1976.
Also safe is the school record of 46 points set by Ernie McCray almost 60 years ago to the day.
“The first thing in my head, my teammates, they saw me on open-side ball screens,” Tubelis said, understating the situation. “I had a night I finished everything. Shots went in. I had a lot of points. Credit my teammates.”
Credit a great night. And perhaps some family and friends who were in attendance. Lute & Bobbi Olson Court was his stage. So, for 33 minutes, he performed.
Figure that he didn’t score in the game’s final 7:33 minutes and he took only one shot in the final five minutes. Apparently, the only ones who didn’t know he was close to a school and arena record were him, his teammates and, well, his coach.
“I wish I did,” said teammate Kerr Kriisa. “If I would have known that I would have given the ball to Zu. Or even like when we dribbled it out (at the end), Zu should have dunked the ball. What he did today was … I don’t even know how to put it into words, to be honest. I’ve never witnessed anything like this when I’ve played with my teammate.”
Few have in Arizona history. Not since Damon Stoudamire scored 45 against Washington State in 1995 has a UA player scored more. And he scored 40 or more twice. Khalid Reeves did it against Michigan State in 1993.
“No, my SID (sports information director) is well informed not to tell me anything,” UA coach Tommy Lloyd said. “It’s like a pitcher having a no-hitter. I don’t need to know about records.”
Well, he was this close. He worked with maximum efficiency, hitting 16 of 21 shot. He went 8 for 9 from the line.
Poetry in motion – or was that with lack of emotion (more later).
Heck, at the half he was trailing Oregon 35-27 by himself.
“Zu was spectacular,” Lloyd said. “Just the way the ball was coming off his hand tonight was something special. You just don’t see it every day. Probably the equivalent of watching a great pitcher, you could just see sometimes how that ball snaps out of their fingers and you know it’s just one of those nights. You don’t get to experience that very often, so I’m really proud of Zu. And the coolest part is he had a bunch of family and friends here from Lithuania. So maybe we need to keep them here.”
Get that friends and family all-semester pass. He was a highlight reel with moves around the basket like he had never done before. And it helped Arizona avenge its loss in January to Oregon, one where it was Oregon that did the manhandling. Now, Arizona has won five consecutive games and is playing some of its best basketball again.
It can attribute that to some of its defensive improvement. On Thursday, Arizona got more handsy – pesky – in getting nine steals. It had 19 points off turnovers.
“We have guys that I think are capable of playing that way,” Lloyd said of the handsy defense. “I want them to turn themselves loose, within the framework of what we’re trying to do. I thought for the most part we did a good job. We held them to 41 percent. It felt like in the second half they made more, maybe they missed some down the stretch there. But yeah, we want to be more aggressive defensively and start possessions aggressively.”
In the end, it was a combination of good play, some good shooting and some pesky defense that put away Oregon. And, of course, Tubelis, who had a night of a lifetime.
Now, if he’d only get excited or show some emotion. He seemingly never does.
“He gets very excited when we win at Fortnite, then you can hear him just letting it out,” Kerr joked. “But Zu is Zu. Let’s (not) act like he’s not giving out emotions. His emotions are different, playing it cool and trying to make some faces. I think if I would have had a 40-piece, I would have done some dumb stuff.”