Lights. Cameras. Azuolas!
Heck, it’s Vegas, baby. And when in Vegas, Arizona’s players are the headliners.
Through the years it’s been that way – whether it was at the MGM or now at the T-Mobile Arena – UA players have had a knack of getting the standing ovation.
Arizona’s 78-59 win was as easy as A-B-C.
Friday night – under the ESPN lights – and in front of a frenzied crowd (mostly from UA), Azuolas Tubelis & Co., didn’t disappoint. Tubelis took center stage for moments, then deferred to Oumar Ballo who then deferred to everyone else. He had a game-high 17 points, hitting eight of 11 shots.
“Zu had some big tight baskets today and really delivered in there in huge critical moments,” UA coach Tommy Lloyd said. “We were kind of wailing a little bit and then kind of snapped off one of those jump hooks and came up with a loose ball and a putback. Our bigs are really good. And when they play like that, I think we’re pretty hard to beat.”
Such was the case at T-Mobile. For much of the game, Arizona had a lead – not a comfortable one, but a lead – then came up with a stretch where it ran away from the Sun Devils, outscoring the Sun Devils 20-4 to eventually put the game away.
Bing. Bang. Boom.
There was a stretch in there where Ballo blocked a shot with just under six minutes left with UA up 60-52, then UA went on a break with Pelle Larsson hitting a 3-pointer on that possession.
ASU couldn’t recover.
“We don’t sit there and coach for 10-0 runs,” Lloyd said. “I wish I could. But, we play consistent with high effort. And these guys have a knack for understanding moments.”
Now, comes an even bigger moment as UA gets ready to face top-seed UCLA on Saturday night. Could it get any better than this on the strip? It’s the 13th time Arizona will be in the conference finals.
“It’s awesome … really cool,” Lloyd said. “Obviously, there’s an amazing rivalry. There’s a mutual respect between both programs.”
Arizona beat UCLA in the title game last year. This year the teams split their games, with UCLA winning the regular season-finale.
“We look forward to the opportunity on a big stage,” Lloyd said.
They will be there courtesy of another good game by Tubelis, Ballo, Courtney Kerr and the rest. In fact, they seem to be playing like they did earlier this year when things looked easy … although it really hasn’t. But Friday, Arizona disposed of a tough ASU with ease, something it couldn’t do a week ago.
“It’s that time of the year you gotta be excited,” said Kerr, who had seven assists. “The seasons get long and, you know, during the season, you might lose a little passion where you have all kinds of stuff (going on) but now we’re playing in the championship game. So, we’re obviously excited.”
Yes, even Tubelis, even if the master of the understatement and non-emotional looks doesn’t show it.
“I think I’m playing well,” Tubelis said. “I think I need to pass better.”
He was referring to his five turnovers. But he knows he’s doing much better than he was for that recent three-game stretch where he was just a shell of himself. But, it appears he’s overcome that and is back … and Arizona is playing like its seemingly unemotional leader – very well.
“Zu gets excited,” Kerr said. “He’s Lithuanian but if you look up how Lithuanians are they aren’t too emotional, they don’t give it up.”
Emotions or not, Kerr sees the player who dominated most of the season.
“Zu has been tremendous and phenomenal all year,” Kerr said. “There’s a reason why he’s top five in power forwards in the country.”
Then there’s running mate Ballo, who appears to be back in early season. Maui O as Lloyd called him. Ballo was named the Maui MVP.
“When Oumar plays with force and plays on balance he’s really good,” Lloyd said. “You can
just see him slowing down, gathering, catching in there, but still being explosive up to the rim on those finishes. I
thought he did an amazing job today defensively protecting the rim. We had some vertical contests, which we love, which were great, and then he just got some huge rebounds. So he is playing great.”
ASU coach Bobby Hurley agreed.
“Ballo’s a handful,” he said.
Now, Arizona is in the finals of the Pac-12 Tournament … again.