LAS VEGAS — Historically, Arizona lives for these moments and usually comes through with great effort and, well, a win. Saturday night’s game with Indiana happened under the bright lights of Las Vegas, Fox Sports and a crazy, frenzied crowd of 13,500.
Big game? Arizona comes up with big moments. You saw it in Maui. You saw it in Vegas. Made-for-TV moments make Arizona get crazy good. It was that in its 89-75 win over Indiana.
A game that had a lot of hype in the first meeting between the two schools didn’t disappoint.
“Obviously, Arizona is a great program so they’ve been in a lot of moments like this and I’m sure they’ve had, you know moments where they hit it out of the park and moments where they struggled like all programs,” Tommy Lloyd said. “I know we’re a program that doesn’t shy away from the limelight. We don’t shy away from the moment and the bigger the game hopefully the better we are. That’s the kind of culture we’re trying to establish.”
Mission accomplished here at the MGM Grand Gardens where Arizona has long established itself as a great tenant. Pac-12 titles, big games and now Saturday’s first-ever matchup with Indiana proved to be memorable.
Utah and California may have had the faithful concerned about just how good UA is, but Saturday the fans were, once again, on board with the Wildcat Train.
The players noticed the roughly 6,000 fans who made their way to the arena, in what was a surprising feel in as much as the Hoosiers seemingly had more fans here. But, the fans helped Arizona get through it all. Even after scoring 15 points and grabbing 12 rebounds and at times looking unstoppable (more later), Oumar Ballo mentioned the fans. Oh, by the way, it was his sixth double-double of the season.
“I just want to say thanks to our Arizona fans because they had our backs today,” he said. “They came to Vegas and showed up. We are grateful for them.”
And they are grateful to them. Sin City turned into Win City.
What they saw may have been Arizona’s best performance of the season, even after UA won the Maui championship after three great games in three days. But this was different.
The game had the atmosphere and energy of a best show on the Las Vegas Strip. Arizona had a cast of characters who stepped up as Kerr Kriisa had 14 points and seven assists. Adama Bal, yes, Adama had nine points with every one coming from the 3-point line. Pelle Larsson had a season-high 14 points and Azuolas Tubelis had a game-high 21 points.
Arizona’s one-two punch – Tubelis and Ballo – were unstoppable. They combined to hit 15 of 25 shots and combined for 19 rebounds.
Indiana coach Mike Woodson called the duo “unique” and tough to stop. And, well they were. They also had some help.
Arizona had a few leading men with Ballo probably being the star … again, much like he was in Maui. Seems like Lloyd could wax poetic on Ballo after every game. He did again Saturday. And how appropriate in that he mentioned a famous prize fighter for his gauge – after all, it’s Vegas.
“Oumar is a really good player; he’s a force,” Lloyd said. “He’s our George Foreman … those body blows and then he can throw some knockout punches, too. He’s hard to play against. It’s really cool for me … to see him come through it and it makes you proud as a coach, but Oumar deserves all the credit because to hang with it like he did and to be in the position he’s in is really inspiring for me as a coach and you know, hopefully it inspires other players who are struggling.”
He didn’t struggle on Saturday, save for those pesky free throws. He went 3 for 8 from the line, but that’s for another day
On this day, it’s his block, his two steals, his points and those two assists, one of which was a fancy over-the-shoulder type he had to Tubelis late in the second half.
He said it was the pass to Tubelis that was his favorite of all his plays.
“(That) was a great play because I need to get better when the double team comes,” he said. “I saw a little bit of improvement with my passing and kicking the ball out so … “
Lloyd then jumped in to say those on the team call Ballo, “Malian Jokic” for his overall play and in reference to Denver Nuggets star Nikola Jokic.
Kriisa quickly chimed in to say he didn’t want to hear that.
But, they were having fun on the winner’s post-game podium. Don’t winner’s always do? Arizona has plenty this year already. Saturday, they had fun, winning in style again.
“I think we’re playing our best basketball when everybody’s having fun,” Kriisa said. “I think the past has shown that you know, when everybody’s 100% – you don’t even have to be locked in and players are smiling and stuff – that’s a huge part of our (identity) and part of the program.”
Big game equals big moments.