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Close call against Southern Miss is just what Arizona needed

Nick Johnson

Nick Johnson dunks for two of his game-high 23 points. Photo by Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

Arizona Wildcats coach Sean Miller usually arrives at a press conference with the same intent as when he stepped to the free throw line as a player — he’s there to make a point.

But Tuesday night’s game against Southern Miss was so unexpectedly crazy, with the error-plagued Wildcats having to rally to beat a short, feisty team missing its leading scorer, that Miller had to shoot for two storylines.

“Any time you have 27 turnovers and you’re a good team and you’re playing at home, it’s unacceptable,” Miller said after eight-ranked Arizona rallied for a 63-55 victory.

On some nights that would have been enough to bring out the angry Sean Miller we’ve seen at times when his team performed badly. But, if anything, he was more tickled than ticked off Tuesday night.

The close call fits right into his master plan.

Here’s why: While the first five games were useful in that they were strolls in the park that helped the coaches painlessly learn how a team with five new players fits together, the win against Southern Miss is the kind of game that will help forge the steel backbone needed to survive in the cauldron of March.

“To be able to win and have those turnovers, now that’s a completely different story,” Miller said.

“The focus for me after the game is, you’re going to play about 35 games and not all of them are going to be fair. … When you have those moments, what you hope is that you can learn and grow from them but still win.

“That, to me, is the gratifying thing about tonight.”

Arizona was stymied early (and often) by Southern Miss’ swarming, extended 2-3 zone. The Golden Eagles (6-2) led by 11 points late in the first half before sophomore guard Nick Johnson hit a last-second 3-pointer before the break.

Southern Miss grabbed a 10-point lead right after halftime, but Johnson sparked the Wildcats. He had an assist, a steal, a dunk, helped force a turnover on an in-bounds play, assisted on a Kaleb Tarczewski dunk and had another steal that led to a basket — all within the first two minutes of the half.

“Nick Johnson, a year ago, would never have been able to fight through because he was a freshman. But he’s so much more mature,” Miller said.

“Even though he had six turnovers, I don’t think it was close who the best player on the court was tonight. It was him.”

Johnson finished with a game-high 23 points, and senior Kevin Parrom had 13 second-half points. Miller inserted Parrom into the second-half starting lineup, playing with only one post player after the break to better solve the zone.

While Arizona (6-0) continued to turn the ball over at an alarming rate, the offense flowed better with the smaller lineup … and the Cats’ defense started to lock down. At one point, Arizona forced Southern Miss turnovers on five consecutive possessions.

The game was tied with under five minutes to go, but Parrom’s 3-pointer gave Arizona the lead. Solomon Hill’s 3-pointer with 1:49 left was a dagger for a six-point lead and the first sign of breathing room.

“It’s kind of weird to say, but I’m happy we had a close game,” Johnson said.

“I know we have veteran leadership … but our freshmen really haven’t been through a close game. We pulled this one out, but we also got the experience factor. We know how to play in a close game, take good shots and stuff like that.

“I think that’s the good thing about it.”

Southern Miss played without leading scorer Dwayne Davis, who was suffering from flu-like symptoms. The Eagles didn’t use a player taller than 6-7, but scrapped for 15 offensive rebounds in what was Arizona’s most physical game of the season.

“It was a man’s game tonight,” Miller said.

“In the first half, we had that deer-in-the-headlights look like, ‘They’re not supposed to play this way defensively.’ And they had a great way of offensive rebounding against our bigger guys.”

Arizona’s 27 turnovers ended up being the team’s most since Jan. 7, 1999, when it had 30 in a 98-87 victory over Washington State. Southern Miss finished with 23 turnovers.

The game was so tight that Miller, who had used all 10 scholarship players in each of the first five games, went with only seven in the second half. Freshman guard Gabe York didn’t play at all. Big men Grant Jerrett and Angelo Chol were bench-bound through the second half.

Turns out, that taught Miller something about his team, too.

“Even after the game, we had some guys not play a lot but we had a good feeling in the locker room,” Miller said.

“It was about winning. To be 6-0 matters to our team. You may say, ‘Of course it matters.’ But you would be surprised how sometimes when things don’t go well for you, it’s not about the 6-0, it’s about you. I like that collective thinking with our team.”

The easy victories were nice. But it was this game that was the most instructive of all.

And it came at the right time with a game at Clemson coming up Saturday, followed by a home showdown vs. Florida a week later.

“This allows us to have a little more confidence if we’re in a game situation like this in the future,” said freshman center Kaleb Tarczewski. “It just puts that under our belt.”

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