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Doing it with defense, Arizona climbs back into NCAA Tournament picture

Jesse Perry

Jesse Perry (right) prepares to block a shot from Stanford's Aaron Bright in the second half. Photo by Jason O. Watson-US PRESSWIRE

The Arizona Wildcats don’t have Derrick Williams. They don’t have MoMo Jones. They don’t have an injured Kevin Parrom.

They don’t have the run-and-gun sensibilities of the great Lute Olson teams. They don’t have a true low-post scorer. They don’t really have a guy you would call a 3-point ace.

But they do have defense.

Never mind defections and injuries and a lack of height, the one thing Arizona can most control — effort on defense — has provided something that seemed to be in short supply just a week ago: Hope.

The Wildcats locked down Stanford on Saturday, winning 56-43 with the kind of stellar defensive effort that was the fuel for an improbable sweep of the Bay Area schools.

“We got it done with the same recipe that we’ve had going for some time,” coach Sean Miller said in his postgame interview on KCUB (1290-AM).

“Our defense is something that has been a constant, even in some of our tougher moments. We’ll continue to grow on offense, but we’ll be in every game because of our defense. …

“I credit all of our players. When we got on the plane in Tucson, I don’t know if we had a lot of believers that we would win one game on this trip, let alone two. But we prepared well and put the Washington loss behind us.”

Just a week ago, Arizona lost a heart-breaker at home to Washington — and lost Parrom to a season-ending foot injury. The Wildcats were 5-4 in a weak Pac-12 at the halfway point, and didn’t figure into anyone’s projections as an NCAA Tournament at-large team.

But defense — especially perimeter defense — has been the Cats’ most consistent strength and helped to rescue the season.

Cal was just 1 of 8 from 3-point range as Arizona won 78-74.

Stanford made just 16 of 63 shots (25.4 percent) and was 3 of 12 from behind the arc. The Cardinal’s 43 points were the fewest it has ever scored against Arizona in a series that dates to 1937 and includes 83 games.

“We’re resilient, and the guys really continued to defend and do the things that we talk a lot about,” Miller said. “I’m really, really excited that we were able to come away with both wins on this trip.”

Heading into Saturday’s game, Arizona was fourth nationally in 3-point field goal defense, allowing opponents to hit a scant 26.7 percent. That number improved slightly after playing Stanford.

“It’s been the toughest defensive team that we’ve faced,” Cardinal coach Johnny Dawkins said in his postgame press conference.

“We didn’t shoot it well, and like I said, give them credit for that. They did a good job in a lot of areas. They were very active, their perimeter was very strong, and they played well defensively tonight.”

You could make the case that the Pac-12 lacks a bevy of skilled scorers, but it’s still noteworthy that Arizona is letting teams shoot just 38.5 percent overall.

If that percentage holds, it would be the team’s best defensive mark since the 1956-57 season.

The defense might improve with an increased role for freshman center Angelo Chol, who blocked four shots in 20 minutes against Stanford. At 6-9 with a huge wingspan, Chol is the interior counterpart to the tough perimeter defense.

“You can really feel his defensive presence,” Miller said of Chol. “It’s good to see him continue to grow.”

Arizona is growing, too. It is 16-8 overall and 7-4 in the Pac-12. The Cats now have a road win over a likely NCAA Tournament team (Cal) and a road victory over a team that was in the RPI top 100. Cal and Stanford had been a combined 26-1 at home this season before Arizona put two in their loss column.

And now?

Arizona figures to be underdogs only once more in the regular season — at Washington on Feb. 18.

The Cats, even without Parrom and without backup point guard Jordin Mayes indefinitely because of a foot injury, should win their remaining home games — Colorado and Utah this week and USC (Feb. 23) and UCLA (Feb. 25). And they should win at Arizona State to end the regular season. Arizona also plays at WSU, which lost Faisal Aden to a torn ACL in the first game against UA.

Add it all up, and it no longer seems unreasonable that Arizona could go 8-1 in the second half of league play. That would give the Cats 22 victories going into the Pac-12 Tournament.

First things first, though, and that is a rematch Thursday night against Colorado, which eked out a 64-63 win in Boulder on Jan. 21.

“We want to defend our home court, and our crowd is too good for us to not take advantage of playing at home,” Miller said.

“These next two games are two of the biggest of the season, because what we did in the Bay Area gives us the opportunity to get our feet on the ground again.”

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