Adversity, if doesn’t happen once, twice or a few times in a season then you’re not having a season.
And, well, Arizona is having a SEASON.
One that could find the Wildcats in the top three in the polls by early next week after Arizona beat Utah 82-64 in McKale Center. Arizona has defeated Utah 11 consecutive times. On Saturday it was a slow burn to a big win, Arizona’s fourth in the Pac-12 where Arizona on top of the standings.
As for the chance to moving up on the polls, Arizona coach Tommy Lloyd called it “rat poison” because if you start believing the polls you lose your edge.
“This team is sitting around, and everyone is telling them they are good,” Lloyd said. “What this team needs to realize what makes them good. What makes them good is when they are edgy and have a chip on their shoulder and they are incredibly hard. We’ve slipped a little in those areas and we’ve gotta get them back.”
Saturday, to some degree, it looked like that in the first half, in addition to losing Kerr Kriisa, who was out for “horse play” that created an undisclosed injury, one that didn’t even have him on the bench.
“It’s nothing crazy and It’s a surprise even to us,” said Lloyd as he addressed the situation unprompted. “We had some guys horsing around at a pregame meal and got hurt. We don’t think it’s anything serious, but they held him out. It sounds crazy but that’s what happened.”
Lloyd said he anticipates Kriisa to return on Thursday.
The game almost became secondary, in the postgame given Lloyd’s message was about “culture and winning and being consistent.”
He mentioned the word adversity a few times, including on his postgame radio show.
“Winning at a championship level is tough,” he said. “We’re not there yet. A lot of people are trying to anoint us that we are all this and all that but we’re not there yet. We’re not. We’re a young team that’s going through some growing pains. We’re going to fight hard to have a great culture here.”
Lloyd added that Kerr “wasn’t the only one in this situation it’s just unfortunate he’s the guy who was injured. We’ll handle it as a team and move forward from there.” He added he found out about the situation before gametime.
For moments in the first half, the offense looked stilted and stuttering with Arizona’s high-powered offense struggling to find baskets. It wasn’t until late in the first half when Arizona was able to get its first lead and eventually take over for good.
Arizona had a 34-31 lead.
It then proceeded to outscore Utah 48-33 in the second half, pulling away with a huge 20-0 run in the second half.
Azuolas Tubelis, who did a lot of the damage in the first half, did the same in the second half, finishing with 32 points. He went 14 of 24 from the floor, adding eight rebounds and two steals.
“I felt like I have the best teammates I’ve ever played with,” he said. “They are unbelievable passers.”
Because Arizona struggled so badly from the perimeter – UA finished ?? from beyond the 3-point line – that they went inside as the cure.
“It looked pretty good in the second half,” Lloyd said.
Behind Azuolas and Christian Koloko took over near the basket. The two “found each other,” Tubelis said. “It’s simple. It’s nothing hard to do. We just scored.”
Koloko added 16 points.
“When they are playing like that and moving like that and connecting on a few high lows it’s special,” Lloyd said. “It’s a fun offense to coach and a fun offense to play in. I’ve coached this system for a lot of years. You gotta fight to get those high lows. If you don’t fight, they’re not going to happen … when they play like that it’s a really effective offense.”
But it was Tubelis who dunked his way to a great game.
“We all know how talented Zoo can be, he’s had tremendous moments and tremendous games,” Lloyd said. “Sometimes he leaves you wanting a little bit more. I also think it’s really cool to have a player who you need to step it up to the level he did today.”
Now come the concerns as Arizona heads to the Bay area to face Stanford and California and then UCLA in its makeup game.
“Having a strong culture that can withstand some adversity,” he said. “Team adversity, individual adversity. Understand that we have gotta play for the greater good. Just because we’ve won a few games doesn’t mean we are where we are at. We are just at the start of our journey.”