This was the team that beat Florida, that beat Miami, that beat San Diego State, that was ranked as high as No. 3 in the nation.
The Arizona Wildcats, after a sleepy opening 12 minutes, ran Washington out of McKale Center on Wednesday night, winning 70-52 and showing all the pieces that can make them dangerous in March.
The 3-point defense wasn’t “pathetic” — which is the word coach Sean Miller repeatedly used Tuesday in describing his team’s recent effort in that area.
The Cats didn’t back-slide in the second half, another Miller criticism.
They were physical, out-rebounding Washington by six.
They got scoring punch and balance from several players.
They didn’t have to deal with any drama … and, man, was that nice.
“It was a fun game,” said senior forward Solomon Hill, who led Arizona with 19 points, 14 of which came in the first half. “One thing we talked about before the game was to have fun. I think we had gotten away from that.”
Fun. Miller also used that word. But in a different sense. As is “it’s not fun” to play the kind of defense Arizona absolutely needs to play for a full 40 minutes. That’s what it is going to take for the Wildcats to feel as good as they felt Wednesday night.
The fun Arizona had on offense, especially in terms of scoring in transition, isn’t possible without first getting defensive stops.
Arizona stopped Washington plenty of times. The Huskies shot 30.8 percent (20 of 65) and made just 1 of 11 3-point attempts.
“It all starts for us on the defensive end,” Miller said. “We have to be a team that is hard to score against. We’re vulnerable if we aren’t, because that’s our strength. …
“I know most of the world has forgotten that we beat both Florida and Miami, but we haven’t. The reason we were able to beat teams of that caliber was because of our defense, not our offense. If we’re going to be good in March, or finish this deal off like we want to, this defense has to be in place from start to finish.”
Arizona (22-4 overall, 10-4 Pac-12) didn’t find its way until there were about 8 minutes left in the first half. The Cats trailed 13-8 when Mark Lyons hit two free throws, igniting a stretch in which he scored 10 consecutive points for Arizona in 90 seconds.
By the time he was done, hitting a 3-pointer with 6:37 to go in the half, Arizona led 18-16. The Cats led by eight at halftime and zoomed away from the Huskies after the break.
Arizona started the game by shooting 3 of 15 from the field. It went 21 of 36 the rest of the way.
“I thought we played probably the best 28, 30 minutes that we played all season long,” Miller said.
Arizona had played 13 conference games before Wednesday night, with only a couple in the bag in the final stretch. A game like this against the Huskies is what the Wildcats needed.
“When you’re the hunted like we are and you’re trying to compete for a conference championship, there’s a lot of pressure on you constantly, just not on game night but in practice. That pressure can really wear on a player, wear on a team,” Miller said.
“It can beat you down being in close games. We’ve been in so many that every once in a while to be in the situation we were in tonight helps you. It helps you moving forward with confidence.”
Lyons and Hill carried the scoring load early in the game, and then Nick Johnson sparked the offense in the second half. He had a stretch in which he scored nine points in a row for Arizona, scoring twice on fast breaks with assists from Lyons.
When Johnson finished his run with another fast-break layup, Arizona led 49-29 with 13:42 to go. Washington trimmed the lead to 14 but was never a serious threat late in the game.
Lyons finished with 14 points, playing only 21 minutes because of second-half foul trouble and an eventual disqualification with 6:55 to go. Johnson scored 12. Freshmen post players Kaleb Tarczewski and Brandon Ashley each had 10.
Hill said it was the team’s best performance since beating USC at home 74-50 on Jan. 26.
“That was a game that was comfortable,” he said.
“Any game we’ve won, it’s always been a fight. It’s good to get a great win like this in front of your home crowd, a place where we’ve dropped two. It’s something we want to change. You don’t want to lose in front of your home crowd.
“I wouldn’t say it’s OK to lose on the road, but protecting home is always key to winning the Pac-12 championship.”
Arizona is only a half-game behind Oregon in the race for that regular-season league title, and Wednesday’s night win looks like a potential catalyst toward a big finish.
Just have more fun.
“I think our guys have been very consistent,” Miller said. “I don’t think they have approached any game as not being fun. It’s never fun to lose, but it’s not as if we’ve lost a whole lot this year. …
“There’s the fine line between pushing and working and also enjoying what we’re doing. We try to balance it as much as possible, and I think we’re in a good place right now in that light.”