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Arizona basketball notes: Cats in position to make a run at league title

Jesse Perry

The interior defense of Washington's Aziz N'Diaye made it tough on Jesse Perry (3 of 14 from the field) last month. Photo by Chris Morrison-US PRESSWIRE

The Arizona Wildcats, winners of five games in a row, head into Saturday’s Seattle Showdown with dreams of a repeat conference championship.

Arizona, having eked out two victories against lower-division Pac-12 teams — Utah last Saturday and 76-72 at Washington State on Thursday night — is in third place. The Cats trail Cal and Washington by one game. They lead Oregon by a half-game.

UA coach Sean Miller, in his postgame radio interview on KCUB 1290-AM, called the game against Washington State “one of our best wins of the year.”

The Cats started slow (falling behind 7-0), couldn’t stop big man Brock Motum (28 points), needed a few good bounces (Motum missed six consecutive free throws down the stretch) … but filled the game with clutch and timely performances.

After the game was tied at 67, Arizona twice beautifully worked its offense. The first time, Solomon Hill fired a pass into the lane to Jesse Perry, rolling to the basket for a layup. The second time, Josiah Turner let loose a left-handed laser inside to Perry, who converted a three-point play.

Kyle Fogg and Brendon Lavender sealed the game by each hitting a pair of free throws in the final 19 seconds. That gave the pair of senior guards a combined 33 points. They hit 7 of 12 3-point shots.

“I can’t say enough about Kyle Fog and Brendon Lavender,” Miller said.

“That’s what you want from seniors, especially in mid to late February in games that mean a lot to this team and their careers. It was very gratifying to see our guys respond and be resilient.”

Now, Saturday.

A win against Washington would make the Wildcats 11-4 in the Pac-12 and give them a season split of the series. It would mean that Arizona would be no worse than tied for second behind Cal, which plays host to Oregon State on Saturday.

Down the stretch, Arizona has the most favorable schedule among the three leaders.

Washington has three road games left after Saturday — Washington State, USC and UCLA.

Cal also has three road games remaining — Utah, Colorado and Stanford.

Arizona is home against USC and UCLA before ending at ASU.

Point is, if the Wildcats stay in the hunt by beating Washington, you’d have to like their chances.

A loss, meanwhile, would put Arizona two games behind the Huskies, who would hold the head-to-head tiebreaker. At that point, UA would be looking to finish strong in order to secure one of the top four berths in the conference tournament, which means a first-round bye.

Bad sign: Washington has won four in a row at home against Arizona.

“Hopefully, we are going to play with great confidence and play hard and play well against Washington on Saturday,” Miller said.

* * *

Freshman center Angelo Chol was perhaps as active as he has ever been on the offensive end, tying his career high with eight points at Washington State, grabbing three offensive rebounds and getting to the free throw line seven times.

It’s not like he hasn’t been playing key minutes in the past few weeks, but his contribution was especially significant Thursday night because Perry was in foul trouble all of the second half.

“When Jesse Perry picks up his fourth foul one minute into the second half, that doesn’t bode well for us,” Miller said.

“Angelo Chol played 18 minutes, but they were a huge 18 minutes. I really felt that while Jesse was out, we weren’t just filling in for him. We had a guy who was contributing and really playing.”

* * *

Lavender won’t mind if the Wildcats play Washington State again in the Pac-12 tournament. He has had a great time shooting against the Cougars’ zone, hitting 9 of 12 3-point shots in two meetings this season.

He entered Thursday night’s game as the Pac-12′s leading 3-point shooter (35 of 68, 51.5 percent) and pushed that percentage to 53.3 percent after making 5 of 7 vs. WSU.

Let’s hold off talk about the UA’s season record for 3-point shooting — Steve Kerr, 57.3 percent, in 1987-88 — but that could become a topic if Lavender has another big game Saturday.

* * *

About the only way Arizona could stop Motum, Washington State’s 6-10 junior forward, was to send him to the line. He entered the game as a 75.9 percent shooter but made 10 of 18 against the Cats, including those six misses in a row.

“He’s a really difficult player to defend,” Miller said. “We’re thankful he didn’t have a great night from the line.”

He added with a chuckle: “Although I’m wondering if he deserved to shoot all 18 free throws.”

The fouls and free throw attempts ended up being fairly even between the teams.

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