Arizona out-rebounded the best rebounding team in the Pac-12 by double digits, which was a nice surprise.
Undersized frontcourt players Solomon Hill and Jesse Perry combined for 33 points and 25 rebounds with no fouls, which was amazing.
And freshman center Angelo Chol, in the biggest bombshell of the night, knocked in an 18-foot baseline jumper, nothing but net.
How are you liking these Wildcats now?
Arizona (17-8 overall, 8-4 Pac-12) put some air between itself and Colorado with a surge halfway through the second half and went on to post a 71-57 victory in McKale Center on Thursday night.
It was another night of the kind of smothering defense that we have to come to expect from the Wildcats, who entered the game ranked fourth nationally in 3-point field goal percentage defense, allowing opponents to hit 26.7 percent.
Arizona improved on that even further after Colorado made just 3 of 16 3-pointers (18.8 percent).
“Our defense is there. It’s proven that our defense is there,” Hill said. “Once we start clicking on offense, the sky’s the limit.”
It was also a night in which Chol showed how valuable he is going to be as the Wildcats try to sprint into March. He had eight points and two blocks in 24 minutes, and then coach Sean Miller hinted at an even bigger role (more on that later).
Admit it: Two weeks ago, you were ready to say, “Wait ’til next year” with Chol.
He had gone scoreless in a three-game stretch vs. Colorado, Washington State and Washington, with four rebounds, five turnovers and only one block in 28 minutes.
Then a (not so) funny thing happened.
Kevin Parrom suffered a season-ending broken foot … and, well, someone had to eat up those frontcourt minutes behind Perry and Hill. And it sure wasn’t going to be erstwhile starting center Kyryl Natyazhko, banished to the walk-on area of the bench.
It was going to be Chol, raw offensive skills and all.
“I was frustrated because I wasn’t contributing much,” he said.
The extra minutes, the extra responsibility, was, in a strange way, liberating. He felt better because he could do his part. He showed it with more aggressive play on both ends of the court, and he’s becoming, rapidly, the feared at-the-rim defender the Wildcats have lacked all season.
As one sign read in the Zona Zoo on Thursday night: “Pay the Chol toll.”
He has averaged six points, 2.7 blocks and 2.0 rebounds in the past three games.
“The difference is when Angelo comes in a game now, he impacts the game in a positive way,” Miller said. “He just doesn’t fill in and give those guys a breather.”
Chol is a long and bouncy 6-foot-9 whose range on offense has generally been no longer than his wingspan. His long jumper Thursday night even flummoxed Colorado coach Tad Boyle.
“When he hit that 17-footer, oh my God,” Boyle said. “That was the shot we wanted (him to take).”
Chol isn’t going to live offensively with that shot any time soon. His contributions will mostly be on defense and with a dunk or two.
His emergence begins to answer a question that has hounded Arizona all season: How do the Wildcats deal with a team that has great size?
Miller said he’s been hesitant to use Chol, 6-7 Perry and 6-6 Hill in the same lineup. Part of that is because he doesn’t want to mess with Hill, who is now flourishing at power forward, with four double-doubles in the past six games.
But the day is coming for that lineup, which, if successful, will help Arizona match up against all-comers in March.
“I do believe that down the stretch, we’re going to have to play those three guys together because on defense Angelo is really making a big, big jump,” Miller said.
It’s no longer, “Wait ’til next year” for Chol.
Now, it’s “Wait ’til next game.”