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.