It was supposed to be just a lazy afternoon at McKale. That was OK, right?
The Arizona Wildcats deserved a breather. They were going to move past the controversy of The Call, dispatch a Utah team that was predicted to finish last in the Pac-12 before the season, and give fans a game that didn’t raise blood pressure.
So much for that.
No replay monitors needed, but it was time for the defibrillators — and another dollop of good fortune — on Saturday after Arizona survived a couple of late 3-pointers from the Utes. The last one caromed off the rim, high off the backboard and then fell on the rim again … before finally giving up the effort as time ran out.
Arizona exhaled and won 60-57 at McKale Center in a game it could never put away despite never trailing.
Those victories in the could-go-either-way games against Florida, San Diego State and Colorado brought jubilation. The emotion of this one was relief.
“We pulled out another lucky one,” said UA senior guard Kevin Parrom. “We’ve been lucky for a couple of weeks now. The luck is going to run out soon. We have to play better.
“We kind of made the game harder than it needed to be; I think everybody has seen that. … We have a bull’s-eye on our back. We have to understand that. Games are going to be tough from here on out. We’re No. 3 in the nation, undefeated, and we have to play harder. Nobody is giving us anything easy.
“Tonight, I think we expected to win by 20 because it’s Utah. They played hard from start to finish.”
Yes, Arizona is the third-ranked team in the nation — and deservedly so based on its resume. But it isn’t playing like the No. 3 team in the nation and, with a few bad bounces (and minus the clutch free throw shooting of Mark Lyons), might barely be clinging to the Top 25.
The Wildcats were nearly shot down this week at home by Colorado’s Sabatino Chen (whose 3-pointer at the end of regulation was waved off) and then by Utah’s Jarred DuBois.
With the Utes trailing 58-57, he missed a 3-pointer with about 10 seconds left. Lyons grabbed the rebound, was fouled, and made both free throws for a 60-57 lead with 7.2 seconds left.
Arizona had a foul to give, and gave it, as Nick Johnson fouled DuBois at halfcourt.
As Utah prepared to inbound the ball, UA coach Sean Miller wanted his team to foul on the catch to put the Utes on the line in a one-and-one situation, but DuBois got the ball and was able to pull up for a 3-pointer at the buzzer.
“We were once against fortunate to win,” Miller said in his postgame press conference, his tie askew and pulled down a couple of inches from his collar. “I don’t think our level of play was really good.”
Arizona led by 10 points on a few occasions but failed to push the advantage any higher than that, and Utah scrapped back in the second half, successfully slowing the pace of the game and frustrating the Cats with a mix of defenses.
Arizona shot just 36.2 percent and didn’t score a single point on the fast break.
While the Cats’ half-court offense still leaves much to be desired, Miller also chided his team’s 3-point defense. Utah went 7 of 16 from beyond the arc, including 4 of 8 in the second half before the two misses in the final 10 seconds.
“We have to have a couple of players step up and do what they’re supposed to do,” Miller said of his 3-poiont defense. “That is what this is about it. Accountability.”
Miller talked about the potential of some players to see “shrinking minutes.”
“If you’re tentative, then you can be tentative on the bench. We have a couple of guys right now who have to step up and defend, play hard, be responsible. Do the things that we recruited them to do, do the things we talk about it,” he said.
“We’re not going to keep making the same mistakes.”
And they’re not going to receive kisses from the basketball gods all season.
Arizona has been good and Arizona has been lucky. Now, the Cats need to be better so they don’t need to be so lucky.
A more efficient half-court offense. Better 3-point defense. More consistency from a trio of freshman big men. Those are some of the things the Wildcats have to work on as they move toward three consecutive road games, starting at Oregon on Thursday.
For now, the Cats can take a deep breath and take some comfort in being 14-0. But not too much.
“We are nowhere near where we need to be,” Miller said.
“Sometimes you hit a peak when you’re playing so well and think no one in the country can beat you. Once in a while, you don’t play well and are reminded of how difficult it is to win every game.”