I’m going to write very little about Arizona’s close call against Utah on Saturday afternoon. No need. Wildcats coach Sean Miller said it all after the game.
I’m here to be your press conference transcriber.
Not a very sexy job, but it probably best serves you on a day like this when the Wildcats avoided an NCAA Tournament bubble-bursting disaster by nearly losing to Utah — a team that entered McKale Center 0-12 away from home and lost to the Cats by 26 points in Salt Lake City last month.
Arizona’s expected Saturday walk in the park turned into high anxiety. The drama had a happy ending as the Wildcats finished on a 12-0 run to win 70-61, but they drew the ire of Miller, who is never afraid to unload his emotions after a game.
So, let’s tell most of the story in Miller’s own words.
We’ll quickly dispense with some of the niceties. He praised how Utah players “stepped up.” He said this was freshman guard Nick Johnson’s best game at Arizona because of his 18 points and timeliness of those points. Miller saluted the four second-half 3-pointers from Brendon Lavender. He recognized Kyle Fogg’s 17 points and six steals.
And then …
“The other side of it, I’m just incredibly disappointed — in myself and in our team,” he said.
“For our team to have pathetic confidence in a game like this … we looked frightened. We missed open shots. We looked lethargic. We did the same thing that we’ve done against Oregon at home, at times against Washington.
“It’s not alarming anymore because we’re almost in March. It’s just really disappointing. …
“When you’re a full scholarship player at Arizona, you play with confidence. We don’t practice and play the best schedule (that we can), play in big arenas and do those things, for you not to be able to make a wide-open shot or run fast. For me to say that I’m tired of it would be a major understatement.
“I’m thrilled the team was resilient and we responded. Sometimes that is what it takes. We’ll take the win, but I’m tired of just sitting over there on the bench watching guys for eight or 10 minutes and it’s almost like, ‘You can’t catch, you can’t shoot, is everything OK, fellas?’”
Arizona had entered the game playing its best basketball of the season, winning three in a row, including a Bay Area sweep and a Thursday night victory over Colorado, the supposed tougher half of this week’s homestand.
But Miller has been saying it — we’ve all been saying it — the Wildcats have little margin of error.
Their formula for competing has to do with defense, effort and hitting their fair share of 3-point shots. Miller saw none of that in the first half. Slow starts have been common all season.
Utah was 12 of 22 from the field, including 4 of 5 from 3-point range, in he first half. The Cats were just at 33 percent from the field. Effort?
“Those were two evenly-matched teams today. Evenly matched,” Miller said, the implication being that they should not have been evenly matched at all, given Arizona’s six-game edge in the conference standings.
“And there is a reason. We’re playing seven players. If three or four of those players don’t play as hard as they are capable of, with incredible energy, doing the things that we do as a team, I’m going to tell you right now, you can pick any team in the nation to come to our home court and it will go just like it did today. …
“The things we do well, we have to do well every game. When we don’t, we’re a disaster. And we were a disaster for a significant portion of that game.”
Arizona fell behind by 13 in the first half, struggling against Utah’s 2-3 zone. Miller said Arizona shooters sometimes had enough time to tie their shoes and spin the ball in their hands … and they still missed the shot.
“When we started to miss, we got really tight. When we got really tight, we got away from moving the ball and we got away from getting the ball close to the basket,” Miller said. “We were taking threes just hoping that they were going to go in. …
“There is only so much you can do. We’re coaching through it. We’re fighting hard. Sometimes you yell and scream. Sometimes you say nothing. But we don’t have a confident team. And it’s disappointing.”
The Wildcats took their first lead of the game with 12:09 to go, when Lavender made a 3-pointer to cap a 15-0 run. Everything looked swell in McKale. And then Utah scored the next seven points. The Cats didn’t lead again until Johnson nailed a 3 with 1:24 left.
Utah didn’t score in the final 5:42 of the game.
“If you keep playing hard, you have a funny way of wearing the other team down. I do think we had great energy at the end,” Miller said.
It was a different story for the first 24 minutes or so.
“The more talented you are as a team, the more experienced you are as a team, the more room for error you have that you can turn it on and off,” Miller said.
“Some of the best teams in the country, as they play with different effort levels, you don’t really notice. If you’re Arizona, and you don’t play with effort level, it’s bad. Effort level, confidence on offense, taking good shots, playing with poise … that was missing.”
Near the end of his postgame press conference, Miller uttered the words that should be this team’s slogan: “We are playing for our lives in every facet of the game.”
That’s the thing. Arizona is good enough to compete with most everybody on its good days. On the other hand, Arizona isn’t talented enough to run away from anybody — not even Utah at home — on its worst days.
“The thing I’m most proud of is that even though we were a disaster, it’s hard to put that behind you and make big plays and rally so that you can be a disaster and still win. And that’s what we did,” Miller said. “Whether you win by one or 100, you move on.”
But Miller wasn’t about to move forward without sending a public message about his displeasure.
He, of course, gets the last word. This is how he closed his press conference:
“It’s not all great; it’s not all bad,” he said. “But the recognition of what happened here today, it’s important that our team understand in an effort to move forward.”