TUCSON — The moment Arizona fans have been clamoring for was finally here. Even with an Elite 8 appearance in 2011 there had yet to be a “marquee” game at McKale Center reminiscent of the days when Lute Olson ran the show.
That all changed on Saturday night, as the No. 8 Wildcats hosted No. 5 Florida in the first matchup of Top 10 teams at McKale since 2004. And even though it was Mark Lyons’ drive to the basket that capped a rally in the final minute to give Arizona the 65-64 victory, a “return” to last season put the Wildcats in position to remain undefeated.
That “return” to last season was Arizona going small, a move that happened mainly because freshman 7-footer Kaleb Tarczewski was in foul trouble for much of the night.
Head coach Sean Miller continued to play two big men at the same time with Tarczewski on the bench in the first half but the moving of Solomon Hill onto Erik Murphy helped limit the senior in the second, as Murphy looked far too comfortable in scoring his ten first-half points.
Murphy would score six points in the second half but Arizona’s ability to pressure him and take away those pick and pop opportunities that he tends to feast on led to four of his five turnovers. Just as important as Arizona’s defending of Murphy was the fact that they didn’t allow Patric Young to go off, something that cost them dearly in last year’s meeting.
Young tallied 25 points (12-of-15 shooting) and ten rebounds (six offensive) in last year 78-72 triumph in Gainesville, with Arizona lacking the bodies needed to keep him in check. With Tarczewski on the bench his classmates had to step up and that they did, even though Brandon Ashley and Grant Jerrett combining for five points (all from Jerrett) and six rebounds doesn’t look like much in the box score.
Young finished Saturday’s game with just eight points and two rebounds, with Arizona’s young big men making him work for his post touches. Both Ashley and Jerrett factored into the equation, with Ashley also helping the Wildcats when they needed to press late.
Jerrett also knocked down two important baseline jumpers down the stretch, displaying a confidence that not all freshmen would have when they’ve gone scoreless for that long.
“We had a freshman make two huge baseline shots that gave us the opportunity to make that comeback,” said Miller.
Hill (18 points) and Nick Johnson (15) led the way offensively along with Lyons, but the contributions of players like Jerrett, Ashley and Kevin Parrom (seven points, four rebounds and three assists) set the stage for Lyons’ finish. While there’s a lot of work to be done (and many games left to be played) it bodes well for the future that guys were able to step up in different areas.
“One thing I like about our team is that each of our players has taken turns,” Miller remarked. “Even when one of our guys has an off night, the team as a collective group is able to make up for that. On any one night, any of our players can have a great night.”