It was a five-star night for the third-ranked Arizona Wildcats. It, however, comes with an asterisk.
Five Arizona players scored in double figures – and before the game you probably wouldn’t have guessed who would lead the Wildcats – as it treated the Stanford Cardinal like a Pac-12 also-ran.
UA won 85-57 in Palo Alto to move to 15-1 overall and 5-0 in the Pac-12 race. Stanford lost for the first time at home this season.
Oumar Ballo – surprise! – led UA with 21 points. Ben Mathurin and Pele Larsson added 13 points each. Justin Kier added 11 points and Dalen Terry added 10. Kerr Kriisa added seven points and seven assists but more on him later.
Arizona coach Tommy Lloyd called it a “a great high character program win” on his postgame radio show.
“You’re getting tested as these games get played out, with unfortunate injuries or tough calls … not saying they are bad calls just tough because some of your guys don’t get to play as many minutes as they are accustomed to. We did a really good job, just hanging with it. It wasn’t perfect but we came out and played a great second half.”
Arizona outscored Stanford 43-26 in the second half, easily putting away a team still looking for an identity. Arizona already has found its: Small lineup or big lineup it doesn’t matter because it’s going to run and stun as much as possible. It did exactly that.
The asterisk? Forward Azuolas Tubelis suffered a high ankle sprain early in the first half, tried to play a little but then left to the locker room. He returned with a protective boot on the foot.
“Those things can be tricky,” Lloyd said of the ankle sprain. “They (UA trainer Justin Kokoskie) will do everything they can to get him back asap.”
The game was never really in doubt from start to finish, given Arizona raced to an early lead and kept the pressure offensively and defensively. At one point Arizona’s bench players had more than Stanford’s starters, going into halftime with a 42-31 lead.With Tubelis down, it was Ballo who stepped up, finishing with a career-high 21 points as he dominated the paint while filling in for Christian Koloko, who didn’t have a great night because of early and late foul trouble.
“He’s been working really hard,” Lloyd said of Ballo. “I’m so proud of Oumar because I’ve been with him quite a while now and his development hasn’t come as easily as he would have hoped. Or even I would have hoped. Sometimes you just gotta hang with it. There’s value by showing up everyday with a positive attitude which he’s done.
“To put on a performance like this when C-Lo (Koloko) struggled with some foul issues is special. It’s special for him and special for our program.”
Arizona did return to form with toughness and Kriisa, who sat out last game with what Lloyd said was an injury that came from horse play at a team meal. Kerr returned to show what he does best: provide energy and spunk to an already talented lineup.
Last week, Lloyd challenged the team with a need to get better, citing a better culture. Thursday night, he spoke about playing with a “chip on our shoulder” and be ‘edgy.’ We can’t be out-physicaled.”
Arizona was outrebounded but Lloyd said the numbers are deceiving given Stanford shot just 30 percent and “there were lots of rebounds to be had.”
Pele Larsson was one of the five players who scored in double figures, finishing with 13 points on 5 for 8 shooting.
“Pele is a really good player,” Lloyd said. “Not to have a turnover is huge for him. I’ve watched how he settled and broke down and got his body low and got his feet under him (was good) … We tabbed him as a potential starter before he got hurt (to start the season). It’s the timing. Awesome for him and awesome for the team to play 33 minutes and for him to play like that.”