LAS VEGAS — The Arizona Wildcats don’t have ready-to-go NBA first-round talent. They don’t have a go-to scorer. They don’t have a pure point guard. They don’t have an all-the-time fearsome defense.
What they have to have, what they often have not had, is a crazy-eyed sense of desperation. A we’ll-play-harder-than-you attitude. A big, fat chip on their shoulders.
Maybe, just maybe, now they’re getting it.
The game against Arizona State last Saturday was a sign. But it was only one game, on Senior Night, against a rival. The Cats would have qualified for extras in The Walking Dead if they didn’t have a pulse.
Say goodbye to the Zombie Wildcats.
Arizona needed every bit of an inspired effort to hold off hard-charging Colorado, 79-69, in the Pac-12 tournament quarterfinals Thursday, further gathering momentum and establishing a style of play heading into the NCAAs.
“We played really hard. That’s what matters,” said guard Nick Johnson. “Playing hard is what will win games.”
Said guard Mark Lyons, “When we play hard, we’re tough to beat.”
It sounds so simple. So simplistic. It begs the question: Why the heck were there stretches when Arizona wasn’t playing so hard as its conference season began to decay?
Whatever. Old news now.
Arizona seems to have found something. Johnson seems to have found something.
He scored a team-high 18 points, including the key basket when Colorado had trimmed a 14-point deficit to 71-69 with less than a minute to play.
Johnson got the ball on the right side, worked Askia Booker down low, twisted and squeezed through just enough space to make a layup with 34.6 seconds left.
After Lyons pushed the lead to six with a pair of free throws, Johnson swatted Booker’s 3-point attempt out of bounds. Johnson made 6 of 7 shots vs. Colorado after hitting only 9 of 38 in his five previous games against the Buffs.
Johnson has excelled in the past two games after slumping late in the season.
“I think I’m now just getting into my groove, getting that back, you can say,” he said.
“We had the last game against ASU and I shot well. I took it personally in this game with how I’ve played against Colorado. I wanted to play well and hit my open shots. …
“With my personality, playing hard, that’s when I’m at my best. I got away from that a little bit in the middle of the Pac-12 season. I’m starting to get it back right now.”
Just in time.
Coach Sean Miller has been pushing buttons and decided to hit the button called “Push.”
He pushed the Wildcats hard in the week before the Arizona State game, harder, he said, than he has ever worked a team in mid-March, when coaches typically ease off the accelerator after a long season.
Miller’s strategy worked then. It is working now.
“We were all really happy with that after the Arizona State win,” said freshman center Kaleb Tarczewski.
“We felt really good. He asked us, ‘Is it good that we keep practicing like this?’ We said, ‘Yeah, we want to keep going hard every day in practice. We think it’s going to make us a better team.’ So that’s what we did this week.”
The Wildcats’ season began with high expectations, and they were chosen, by a hair, to win the Pac-12 regular season. That didn’t happen. UCLA won it, beating Arizona twice along the way, and the Cats will look for revenge Friday night in the conference tournament semifinals.
Whatever point spread the oddsmakers here in Las Vegas decide to slap on this game, the Wildcats need to play like their 20-point underdogs.
Arizona was once No. 3 in the country this season, but the Cats are no bullies and had no reason for swelled egos. Miller can’t merely roll the ball on the court and say, ‘Go win.’
Forget swagger. Arizona must define its season by its sweat, by playing differently than it did in two losses to the Bruins.
“The UCLA games were a point in season when we were not really locked in with our defense,” Johnson said.
“We gave them a lot of easy shots. We feel in the last two games we really turned things around, starting in practice. Just playing hard.”