It was nearly two weeks and two days ago when Sean Miller challenged his team to get better defensively. It had no choice but to if It was going to compete in the Pac-12 Conference. Arizona had just gotten swept by USC and UCLA and UA looked, um, well not so good, although Miller did say he liked a few things from that weekend.
Since then, Arizona has won three consecutive games, the latest that made it a season sweep of Arizona State on Monday night. Arizona defeated ASU 80-67 in a Pac-12 After Dark and nearly-to-the-next-morning game.
“We got organized,” Miller said, saying he got a complete game in a win against Oregon State “and since then we are improving. It makes sense that we are improving because some of the guys we are playing are really young. The more practice and game experience they get I think the more consistent they are.”
Terrell Brown, Jr, is stepping up and finished with a team-high 18 points. James Akinjo and Azuolas Tubelis each had 16 points.
So, here they are at 6-3 in the conference and 12-3 overall. They are playing without Jemarl Baker who is out for the season with a broken right hand and now might be without Bennedict Mathurin who was injured midway through the first half. (It’s still unknown on the severity of his sprained ankle.)
Time will tell.
“(But) judging how we practice and how our team shows up every day we’ve got a really consistent group,” Miller said. “When you’re working hard every day you have a way of continuing to improve.”
It looked like it for at least one half on Monday night when Arizona didn’t do anything wrong and ASU couldn’t do anything right as UA jumped out to a 12-0 and cruised to a 40-18 halftime lead.
Last week’s close game was all but a memory – or at least it looked like it. The biggest worry, of course, was the severity of the injury to Mathurin.
Now, Miller is concerned about the roster getting smaller and smaller given he’s running out of guards and Kerr Kriisa isn’t expected to get on the court for another two weeks.
“We don’t have any guards,” Miller said. “In the second half, we tried to play the smartest that we could.”
Given UA couldn’t afford to lose Terrell Brown or James Akinjo to foul trouble, Arizona didn’t push it like it did in the first half. And, well, of course ASU closed the gap – much like it did last year when it erased a seemingly unsurmountable UA lead and eventually won.
And yes, “the game starts to feel funny” when you have turnovers and don’t hit those free throws, Miller admitted of Monday’s game.
But, this time, that wasn’t the case. Arizona held its poise and kept the Sun Devils reeling to its sixth consecutive loss.
“We did what we needed to in the second half,” Miller said. “In the first half, we played very, very good basketball both on offense and defense.”
It allowed UA to get out to that 40-18 lead. ASU didn’t score until seven minutes had gone off the clock. The only think you wondered if Bill Walton would sing a lullaby or two before the night was over.
Thankfully, he didn’t.
“We were ready to play,” Miller said, explaining how UA got off to a good start. “sometimes you can be ready to play but sometimes it doesn’t mean you’ll be off to a great start. But (Monday) you could feel it.”
Players were engaged. Players were in their right spots. The pace was good, and they shared the ball. It looked like some of Arizona’s best basketball this season.
“Guys were very, very confident,” Miller said.
Then came the second half when Arizona didn’t look like it did in the first half. Still, it was able to hold off an ASU rally to get the double-digit win.
“I’m really proud of our guys to gut it out and play the way we did without Ben,” Miller said.
So, Miller & Co., will take the win and get ready to avenge an earlier loss to Stanford on Thursday.