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Life without Derrick: Big men struggle in rare exhibition loss for Wildcats

Sean Miller has his eyes wide open about where his team is at right now. Photo by David Kadlubowski, The Arizona Republic

This is life without Derrick Williams.

Arizona, the defending Pac-10 champs who nearly reached the Final Four perched on Williams’ shoulders, lost at home Thursday night. To a team from Seattle, and not one named Washington, or even Seattle U.

It was Division II Seattle Pacific that came into McKale Center, worked its offense for so many easy shots down low, out-worked the Cats for rebounds and, as UA junior Solomon Hill said, “punched back” after Arizona rallied from a 13-point deficit to take a late lead.

The Falcons took home a 69-68 victory when Nick Johnson’s 3-point shot came up well short at the buzzer, delivering Arizona’s first exhibition loss since Nov. 19, 1984, when Athletes in Action beat Lute Olson’s second team 81-80.

“I don’t think we had a bunch of guys out there not really trying or overlooking this game,” coach Sean Miller said. “Part of what you saw tonight is we’re just not very good. We’re just not.”

With about 15 minutes left, the McKale Center crowd got to its feet and started chanting “U of A! U of A!” and, all of sudden, it was like a mid-season game had broken out. Arizona scratched its way back and led 65-63 with 3:30 left, but Seattle Pacific went on a 6-0 run with the help of two 3-point misses from the Cats.

Arizona nearly pulled out the victory when Jobi Wall (game-high 24 points) missed the front end of a one-and-one with 22 seconds left. Johnson followed his own miss to make the score 69-68 with seven seconds left, and Solomon Hill stole a pass near halfcourt.

Hill fed the ball to Johnson, whose 3-pointer at the buzzer was well short.

So, what to make of all this?

There was no postgame panic from Miller, who said he wasn’t throwing chairs or anything like that in the locker room.

He said he reminded his team that it has had practiced only 11 times. There was no real scouting done to prepare for Seattle Pacific, as there would have been if the game had counted on the record. The coach, especially early, was busy trying different combinations of players. The team is without one of its best players, injured Kevin Parrom.

The season is a process. Miller knows that.

But this is life without Derrick Williams, and things won’t come easy. Williams even tweeted after the game: “That’s embarrassing.” Ouch.

Here’s a double-ouch: Starting center Kyryl Natyazhko and backup center Sidiki Johnson combined for two rebounds in 38 minutes. Miller won’t stand long for that. He already has to contemplate trying freshman power forward Angelo Chol at that position.

Arizona was out-rebounded 29-20. Oh, imagine the damage UCLA could do.

“That’s hard to win when you get you get one defensive rebounds by your 5,” Miller said. “I have to ask myself, maybe Angelo Chol can help us there. Before tonight, I wasn’t sure if we needed to do that.”

By the end of the game, power forward Jesse Perry was playing the center position, and that might be a way to get Arizona’s best five players on the court, although that would be a very small lineup. It’s a process.

“We don’t have our roles down,” Miller said.

“We don’t have enough information as a coaching staff to really, truly know who deserves to play more or play in a different role.”

A year ago, Miller had to work only one freshman — Jordin Mayes – into the rotation. Now, he has to get four freshmen ready. Nick Johnson stood out the most, scoring a team-high 18 points in 21 minutes off the bench. He didn’t shy away from taking big shots, and he made 7 of 11 attempts from the field.

What does Miller hope his freshmen learned?

“How hard it is to play college defense,” Miller said.

“It takes great effort. When we made our surge, we were playing really hard. And yet, when we weren’t playing hard, Seattle Pacific made us look bad and got great shots because they execute.”

Miller said he saw positives in he thought Arizona got better during the game and that should lead to some “spirited practices.”

Arizona will play its second exhibition Tuesday night against Division II Humboldt State.

Until then, UA is in a humbled state.

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