The Arizona Wildcats are 12-0. Couldn’t be better.
Arizona will ride high into the new year, ranked No. 3 and coming off a Christmas Night victory in Honolulu when (Saint) Nick Johnson swatted away a layup in the final seconds to give UA a 68-67 victory over San Diego State in the Diamond Head Classic.
The 12-0 start matches the program’s best since the 1987-88 season — that can’t really be a quarter century ago, can it? — but college basketball is a process, gathering speed toward March, so the 12-0 record has to be put into context.
Coach Sean Miller did.
“One of the things we learned about our team is we have a big heart,” Miller said in his postgame radio interview on 1290-AM (KCUB).
“We have the ability to make big plays at the right time. So much of this comes down to the ending of games, and players being able to make big free throws, being able to make a drive to get fouled … ”
And soar through the air for a blocked shot.
“Nick’s block was just incredible,” Miller said. “Without him there, the ball goes in the basket and we lose.”
So, Arizona marches on, one of five undefeated teams. This is a Final Four-good squad that still has a tremendous amount of upside as its young post players keep growing over the next several weeks. But Miller doesn’t need all his young bigs all the time. That’s the thing with this team. Deep. Versatile.
Arizona led throughout the first half Tuesday night but then the Aztecs, buzzing around the Wildcats’ post players and limiting their production, went on a run and led by eight on two occasions, the latter coming at 45-37 with 14:22 to go.
Unlike last season, Miller has options. He shelved 7-footer Kaleb Tarczewski downshifted to an athletic lineup that included wings Kevin Parrom and Solomon Hill with one post player, sometimes 6-8 Brandon Ashley. Bingo. That smaller combination matched up better against SDSU’s lineup.
“I don’t know if anybody panicked on our team,” Miller said.
“We had some individual players not having a good night and we had some bad moments. When a team like that gets up eight points in the second half, it’s not a good feeling because you know they’re very good and it is not an easy team to come back against. They’re not going to beat themselves.
“But we just stayed with it.”
Hill was a big part of that. As aggressive as he has been all season, the senior had 21 points, six rebounds and three assists in the title game. He was chosen the tournament MVP.
Parrom was a big part of stick-to-it attitude, too.
Arizona was down 41-33, when he grabbed a missed 3-pointer from Johnson and put in a layup. On the next possession, he led a fast break and a fed a bounce pass to Johnson for a reverse layup. That was a huge sequence that put Arizona right back in it.
His layup gave Arizona a 62-61 lead with 3:37 to go. His 3-pointer put the Cats on top 65-64 with 2:22 left. Parrom shot 7 of 11 from the field — the rest of the team was 15 of 48 — for a season-high 17 points.
“I can’t give Kevin Parrom enough credit,” Miller said.
“He came into the game and he made a huge difference, both in the first half and the second half. Every shot he took seemed to be a big one. He played like a senior and he played like somebody who has been through a lot of adversity and knows how to handle it and is at home in pressure situations.”
Jamaal Franklin gave San Diego State a 67-66 lead with 31.4 seconds left when he hit the second of two free throws. That set up Mark Lyons time for Arizona.
The senior transfer from Xavier is the go-to guy for the Wildcats in clutch situations. He’s what Arizona didn’t have last season. The Cats spread the court and let Lyons go to work; he drove to the basket and was fouled with 13.1 seconds left. He made both shots.
Chase Tapley had the ball in his hands at the other end of the court for the win. He dribbled left across the top of the key in the final seconds, losing Johnson on a screen. Tapley turned the corner and headed for what appeared to be the game-winning layup.
But Johnson recovered from the screen and followed him all the way down the lane, using his incredible leaping ability to block the shot from behind.
With that, the Cats were 12-0 and champs of the Diamond Head Classic … and the new year looks full of exciting things.