Arizona Wildcats

Arizona forward Ryan Anderson (12) scores against UNLV during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game, Saturday, Dec. 19, 2015, in Tucson, Ariz. Arizona defeated UNLV 82-70. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)
Associated Press

Post play, turnovers will determine No. 13 Arizona’s Pac-12 fate

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TUCSON, Arizona — For all the questions surrounding the Pac-12 and its lack of a dominant team, the two-time defending regular season champions may very well be the best bet to take the crown in 2015-16.

No. 13 Arizona may not have the projected lottery picks that they’ve had in each of the last two seasons, but they’re still talented and do have both depth and versatility. Those attributes were on display Saturday night as they beat UNLV 82-70 for their 46th consecutive home victory, doing so despite turning the ball over 18 times with 14 coming in the second half.

Dusan Ristic, whose role has grown in importance due to both the loss of Brandon Ashley and the injury suffered by senior center Kaleb Tarczewski, scored a game-high 20 points and he was efficient in doing so. Not only did Ristic shoot 6-for-8 from the field, but he also shook off his struggles from the foul line by making seven of his eight attempts.

The sophomore may have had just two rebounds on the night, but his ability to score in the post (and even making a three-pointer) was something the Runnin’ Rebels struggled to deal with in the first half. And he’s played well enough to this point to open up some new possibilities for Arizona when Tarczewski returns to the court.

“He’s getting a chance to show what he does every day,” Arizona senior forward Ryan Anderson said of Ristic. “He’s one of our hardest workers, and his skill around the basket is something that can’t really teach and you saw it tonight. He stepped out and made a three and a couple jumpers, but his game around the basket is really unmatched by many people in the country.

“His thing is just getting a chance to play and getting comfortable in our system, and I think as our season continues this time without Kaleb is going to help [Dusan] and our team.”

In Arizona’s last three games Ristic has averaged 14.0 points, 4.7 rebounds and two blocks per game, shooting 68.4 percent from the field. Against UNLV 16 of his 20 points came in the first half, and as a team Arizona scored 26 of its 44 points in the paint. Whether it was post entry feeds or dribble penetration, Arizona was able to penetrate the UNLV defense on a consistent basis.

The Runnin’ Rebels did a better job of closing driving lanes in the second half, and their move to a smaller lineup made necessary by Stephen Zimmerman aggravating a thigh injury suffered in practice earlier in the week was a factor as well. But even with those improvements there was also the issue of defending without fouling for the visitors.

Arizona shot 29-for-39 from the foul line, and their 19-point advantage was one of the key differences between the two teams. In Ristic and Ryan Anderson (17 points, 13 rebounds) the Wildcats have two big men who can get points in the low post, and they also have a guard in Allonzo Trier capable of breaking teams down off the dribble. Each of Arizona’s starters attempted at least five free throws against UNLV, with Ristic and Anderson (11) responsible for 19 of those 39 attempts.

The Wildcats had an advantage in the front court and they took advantage, with Ristic and Anderson producing quality performances as a result.

“I think when you have Dusan and Ryan and they’re active and on the glass, and they’re getting the ball deep…I think we did a good job at times of getting them the ball,” Miller said. “I wish we could have got it to them more, and they could have been even more effective. That’s where our advantage against UNLV was.”

Five Wildcats scored in double figures Saturday night, with Trier and Kadeem Allen adding 15 apiece and Gabe York 11. The question for Arizona will be how they manage the turnovers, especially with their use of both Allen and Parker Jackson-Cartwright at the point. The Wildcats committed just four in the first half, but 14 in the second half allowed UNLV to pull to within three with just under eight minutes remaining.

This group doesn’t have the margin for error that they did the last two seasons, and they don’t have the security of knowing that they have a clear answer at the point in T.J. McConnell. How Arizona manages the basketball will be critical in a conference that doesn’t have much (if any) separation at the top. And their head coach is confident that the Wildcats have the ability to take better care of the basketball on a consistent basis.

“Fourteen turnovers in the second half is why you leave the game maybe not feeling the way you’d want to after a big home win,” Miller noted. “Our turnovers came in a number of different areas; Gabe and Kadeem combined for ten and that’s not good.”

“When you turn the ball over the way we did [in the second half] any team on our schedule can beat us,” Miller continued. “The good news is, if we can become that team, and I know we can, where we can play a whole 40 minutes with single digits (in turnovers) I believe we can beat anybody. And it’s no more complicated than ‘how much will we improve our turnovers from this point on.'”

SUNDAY’S SNACKS: St. John’s upsets Syracuse, No. 9 Villanova rolls

Federico Mussini
Associated Press
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GAME OF THE DAY Houston 105, LSU 98 (OT)

Rob Gray Jr. scored a career-high 31 and Chicken Knowles added 20 and nine rebounds as the Cougars beat the Tigers at home. This was the second test of the season for Kelvin Sampson’s team, which lost at Rhode Island earlier in the week.

LSU welcomed back guard Keith Hornsby and he scored 32 points, with three coming on the shot that forced overtime, and Tim Quarterman added 27, ten and six assists, but defending and rebounding were major issues for Johnny Jones’ team. Ben Simmons finished with 13 points, 14 rebounds and five assists before fouling out late in regulation.

IMPORTANT OUTCOMES

St. John’s 84, Syracuse 72: Chris Mullin picked up the biggest win of his tenure as head coach at his alma mater, with the Red Storm beating the Orange by 12 at the Garden. Federico Mussini scored 17 points to lead five Red Storm in double figures, with Amar Alibegovic (15 points, nine rebounds) and Durand Johnson (15, seven and four assists) among the other standouts for the home team. Syracuse struggled from deep, shooting 5-for-26 from three.

Rob Dauster has more about this game here.

Nebraska 70, Rhode Island 67: Shavon Shields scored 21 points and grabbed seven rebounds and freshman guard Glynn Watson scored 13 of his 17 in the second half at the Huskers came back to be the Rams in Lincoln. Jarvis Garrett and Kuran Iverson scored 15 apiece for URI, with Jared Terrell’s three-pointer that would have tied the game missing the mark in the final seconds. Three of the Rams’ four losses this season have been by three points or less.

STARRED

Mandell Thomas, Fordham: Thomas accounted for 27 points, seven rebounds and two assists in the Rams’ 92-55 win over Coppin State. Fordham’s now 9-1 on the season.

Obi Enechionyia, Temple: The Owls fell short against Saint Joseph’s but the sophomore forward played very well, scoring 25 points and grabbing 13 rebounds.

STRUGGLED

Malachi Richardson, Syracuse: Richardson missed all eleven of his three-point attempts in a loss at St. John’s, scoring 15 points on 4-for-20 shooting.

Kevin Puryear, Missouri: Puryear, who to this point in the season has been the Tigers’ best front court player, scored four points on 2-for-10 shooting in a blowout loss at No. 13 Arizona.

Chicago State’s three-point shooting: The Cougars were fighting an uphill battle against Northwestern, which comes as no surprise. But they shot 1-for-19 from three in the 77-35 defeat.

THE REST OF THE TOP 25

  • No. 4 Iowa State got off to a sluggish start but that didn’t keep them from taking care of Arkansas-Pine Bluff, 78-64. Jameel McKay scored 18 points and Matt Thomas added 17 for the Cyclones, with the latter seeing more playing time with senior Naz Mitrou-Long still working his way back to full strength after undergoing hip surgery in the summer.
  • No. 9 Villanova rebounded from its first loss of the season in solid fashion, beating Big 5 rival La Salle 76-47. The Wildcats shot nearly 55 percent from the field, and Josh Hart led five players in double figures with 18 points.
  • No. 13 Arizona rolled to an 88-52 win over Missouri Sunday night, with Mark Tollefsen leading six in double figures with 17 points. The Tigers shot just 30.4 percent from the field and didn’t have a single player score in double figures.
  • Jevon Thomas, whose wayward behind the back pass led to his getting yanked from a loss to Virginia on Tuesday, rebounded with a 21-point effort as No. 14 West Virginia steamrolled ULM 100-58. Bob Huggins’ team scored 59 points in the first half and racked up 14 steals on the day.

OTHER NOTABLE OUTCOMES

  • Marc-Eddy Norelia scored 20 points and grabbed eight rebounds in FGCU’s 77-76 win over UMass. Rayjon Tucker’s three-point play with 10.6 seconds remaining proved to be the difference.
  • Bonzie Colson scored 14 points and grabbed seven rebounds in Notre Dame’s 81-61 win over Loyola-Chicago. In total the Fighting Irish had five players in double figures, with forward Matt Ryan scoring 14 off the bench.
  • Benji Bell scored 18 points off the bench to lead Florida State to a comfortable 75-58 win over Southeastern Louisiana. Freshman guard Malik Beasley added 16 for the Seminoles.
  • James Woodard scored 20 points and grabbed six rebounds as Tulsa won 70-61 at Missouri State.
  • South Dakota State moved to 9-1 on the season with an 86-68 win over UCSB. Deondre Parks led the way for the Jackrabbits with 23 points and five rebounds, and SDSU has now won 26 straight home games.
  • Saint Joseph’s had some issues with its defending of ball screens, but they managed to win at Temple 66-65 in overtime. DeAndre Bembry finished with 17 points and 13 rebounds and freshman Lamarr Kimble made some key plays down the stretch for the Hawks.
  • Bennie Boatwright scored 17 points and Jordan McLaughlin added 14, seven and four assists as USC beat Yale 68-56. Julian Jacobs sat out the game with tendonitis in his Achilles tendon.
  • BeeJay Anya scored a career-high 17 points as NC State took care of USF, 65-46. Cat Barber led the way offensively for the Wolfpack with 19 points.
  • Monmouth won its home opener, beating Wagner 73-54 with Micah Seaborn posting a line of 19 points, three rebounds and four assists to lead the way.
  • Josh Hawkinson scored 17 points and grabbed 14 rebounds as Washington State beat UTEP, 84-68, to move to 6-2 on the season.
  • Shannon Hale’s steal and breakaway dunk with 25.6 seconds remaining was the play Alabama needed to beat Clemson 51-50 on the road. Retin Obasohan scored 23 points and grabbed five rebounds to lead the way for Avery Johnson’s team.
  • Tre Demps went for 23 points, nine rebounds and four assists as Northwestern blew out Chicago State 77-35.
  • Jordan Wilson scored 20 points and Southern Miss transfer Dallas Anglin, seeing his first action of the season, added 19 off the bench as Northern Colorado beat Colorado State 73-64 for their first win over a Division I opponent this season.
  • Josh Adams scored 22 points and Jason McManamen added 15 as Wyoming rebounded from a loss to Southern earlier in the week with a 62-59 win at New Mexico State. The Cowboys limited the Aggies to 35 percent shooting.

Strong second half propels No. 19 Arizona to win at No. 13 Gonzaga

Gabe York
Associated Press
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While neutral site games and in-season tournaments can help teams figure out who they are, there’s no test more valuable than having to do so in a hostile environment. No. 19 Arizona played its first road game Saturday afternoon, and despite trailing by as many as 14 points Sean Miller’s team found a way to beat No. 13 Gonzaga 68-63 in Spokane.

And while the Wildcats were much improved offensively in the second stanza, it was their defense and perimeter play that opened the door for a comeback.

Senior guard Gabe York led the way with 14 second-half points while also grabbing six rebounds and dishing out two assists, playing the entire 20 minutes as Arizona made its charge. York scored all 14 of those points during a stretch in which Arizona outscored Gonzaga 22-10, turning a 40-28 deficit into a 50-50 tie with 12:57 remaining. The Wildcats needed someone to step forward offensively to provide a much-needed spark, and he was the one to do so.

Ryan Anderson (11 second-half points) and Allonzo Trier, who was Arizona’s best offensive player in the first half, chipped in as well, with Arizona shooting 50 percent from the field and scoring 20 points in the paint. As opposed to seemingly looking to go “shot for shot” with Gonzaga, Arizona did a better job of getting the shots that worked for them as the second half progressed which resulted in their averaging nearly 1.1 points per possession.

And for those clamoring for the Wildcats to find a “go-t0 guy,” it was York and Anderson who combined for the game-sealing pick and roll with less than 20 seconds remaining. Contrast that with the end of their loss to Providence, which had Parker Jackson-Cartwright and Dusan Ristic doing so in a sequence that resulted in a turnover. Saturday’s finish gets Arizona closer to figuring out that particular role, which will only help them down the line.

But the improved offense would not have meant anything Saturday without better play on the defensive end. Without Kaleb Tarczewski (Przemek Karnowski didn’t play for Gonzaga), who is out with a left foot injury, Arizona had to account for the absence of its best interior defender and that was an issue against Gonzaga’s tandem of Kyle Wiltjer and Domantas Sabonis.

Wiltjer, who finished with 33 points, and Sabonis (18 points, 16 rebounds), combined to score 32 of Gonzaga’s 38 first half points and to no one’s surprise they were going to be an issue throughout for Anderson, Dusan Ristic and Mark Tollefsen. As a team Gonzaga averaged 0.67 points per possession in the second half, and Wiltjer needed 15 shots to score his 13 second-half points.

So how did Arizona get Gonzaga out of its comfort zone? By making the big men make challenged shots and forcing the guards, most notably Josh Perkins who committed four of his five turnovers in the second half, to make plays. Contrast that with Arizona’s two-headed point guard of Kadeem Allen and Parker Jackson-Cartwright, who combined to commit just one turnover.

The questions surrounding Gonzaga focused on their perimeter play, which is to be expected given just how much they lost from last year’s Elite Eight team. It isn’t easy to replace Kevin Pangos, Gary Bell Jr. and Byron Wesley, which frankly goes without saying. Young players such as Perkins and Silas Melson will continue to develop for head coach Mark Few as the season wears on.

But on this day Arizona’s guards, led by York, won the matchup and that was a major factor in the final result.

Unlike last season’s team, which returned a lot of experience and had clear role definition almost from the start, this current group of Wildcats is still figuring things out and Saturday’s win doesn’t change that. But it does serve as an important result for a team looking to grow into a group capable of winning a third consecutive Pac-12 title.