Alabama coach Nate Oats used the word “physicality” at least three times in describing Arizona Wednesday night.
How many times has that happened over the years? Um, zero?
Well, these aren’t your father’s Wildcats anymore. Not in the slightest given how the Wildcats handled Alabama here at Footprint Center, 87-74, for their ninth win of the season.
“Their physicality on defense, (Oumar) Ballo with protection (near the rim) and (Keshad) Johnson’s … we have him as the best rebounder in the country six feet and under,” Oats said. “On the defensive side they’re good. They are the best offense in the country, and they battled us some pretty good in the second half.”
And that was the difference after what was a stilted and stuttering first half. Arizona outscored Alabama 46-34 in the second half and went on a 14-0 run to help spark it.
Defense, defense, defense.
Pelle Larsson started it when he dove on the floor, recovered a loose ball found an open man and later got a score. Arizona capped off an 11-0 run (eventually the 14-0 run)when KJ Lewis stepped in front of a pass and went on a fast break layup to make it 61-54 with 8:58 left.
Arizona was on a roll by then.
“They are the best team in the Pac-12 and one of the best in the country,” Oats said.
Earlier, Oats said Arizona “was one of the best teams in the country on both sides of the ball.”
Wednesday night there were times it looked it and other times not so much. But again, it was the style of the game that made it look ugly. There were 45 foul calls. Two Bama players fouled out. The two teams combined for 63 free throws.
Alabama was held to its fewest points of the season both by its own undoing and Arizona’s toughness. Bama was eight for 40 from beyond the 3-point line.
And Arizona scored 26 points off of Alabama turnovers.
“I thought we were there all game with defense to offense,” UA coach Tommy Lloyd said. “Maybe we were a little sloppy in transition early … we definitely got our transition game going in that second half.”
Yes, it took that long. Arizona found itself in a big hole early at 0-9 before it started to ease back in the game. It eventually tied it at 23 all and later took the lead at the half, 41-40.
“In the first half they pounded us on the glass,” Lloyd said. “Embarrassing. Fortunately, our guys stepped up and responded.”
Again, it may have been Larsson hustle play with 10:26 left and the score tied at 54. Eleven seconds later he tipped in a ball and Arizona never trailed again. It started Arizona’s 14-0 that eventually helped it shake Bama.
Once again, team was the theme as five players scored in double figures, with Larsson and Ballo leading the way with 16 points each. Kylan Boswell had 15. Caleb Love, after missing his first five shots, went 3 for 5 the rest of the way to finish with 13 points and Johnson had 11 points.
The centerpiece – literally – may have been Ballo, who helped foul out two Bama players all the while not getting called for any. He added eight rebounds, as well.
“He’s a physical force, he demands a lot of attention,” Lloyd said of Ballo. “He was physically able to battle Zach Edey (last week) for most of that game. When there’s no Zach Edey there’s a Big O. He’s an incredible force out there and he impacts the game at both ends of the floor … And that free throw is looking pretty tight to me.”
Tight is good – if going 6 for 10 from the line is good. That’s what Ballo did from the line. Making Bama pay – maybe?
“I’ve been really working on my free throws lately,” Ballo said. “I saw that the guy purposely tried to foul me. My mindset was okay, if you want to foul me I gotta make him pay for it.”
It all helped Arizona get back to winning, something it needs to do as it closes out the preconference schedule on Saturday.
“For us to bounce back today was great and we have a terrific opportunity against a really good FAU team on the weekend,” Lloyd said.