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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

Column: Wildcats pass test in hostile road environment

A+UTEP+fan+mocks+a+referees+call.
Rebecca Noble

A UTEP fan mocks a referee’s call.

EL PASO, Texas — While a few UTEP fans dropped the “overrated” chant on Arizona men’s basketball, the value of the road win cannot be overestimated.

The No. 3 Wildcats (12-0) picked up much more than another win on Friday night by beating the Miners 60-55. Unlike many teams, the UA put their undefeated record to the test in a hostile environment and it paid off.

“This was a great test for us and whether we won or lost tonight, I believe we’re going to be a better team,” UA head coach Sean Miller said.

Rather than stuffing their face with some cupcakes, the Wildcats prepared for a run at another Pac-12 championship and top seed in the NCAA tournament with a true road test in late December, a rarity.

Not only did they better themselves by facing a challenge, but they also added a solid win their resume. The NCAA committee is known to reward teams for laying it on the line like that.

McConnell said it was “huge” for the freshmen to get the experience of playing a road game out of the way.

“That’s only going to help us once we start Pac-12 play on the road,” McConnell said. “Everyone is going to give us their best shot and their crowds are going to be sold out, so we got to be ready for it.”

McConnell compared the atmosphere to Washington and Washington State.

“Even compared to Colorado, it was really loud and when you’re on the road, you only have yourself and I thought we did a good job for our first road game tonight,” McConnell said.

While most UA freshmen didn’t play much, point guard Parker Jackson-Cartwright only played five minutes, center Dusan Ristic three and forward Craig Victor was suspended for the game for not fulfilling an academic obligation according to Miller, Arizona’s most important rookie got tested.

Forward Stanley Johnson scored 17 points, grabbed six rebounds and had four steals in his first road test. He took on what the crowd threw at him (figuratively, this wasn’t ASU) and shined.

Johnson said when you sign up for Arizona, you expected to be a target.

“I was interested to see how I would respond,” Johnson said. “At McKale it’s really easy to play because every time you do something good, it gets really loud and it makes the other team nervous. But out here, I didn’t have somebody to be like ‘oh good job Stanley’ if I miss a shot, they’re going to boo me and say ‘overrated.’”

While the Miners’ fans were raucous and loud, a lot of them were just there because of the Wildcats. If the game was against a team like UTSA or UAB, there likely would be a lot of empty seats.

Arizona was the highest ranked team to ever play the Miners in El Paso and it was the first sell out at the Haskins Center since head coach Tim Floyd’s first game at UTEP on Nov. 12, 2010.

UTEP fans shouted that they were impressed by the Wildcats, some of which motioned back to the crowd after big plays for Arizona.

Wildcats tested themselves against a team that has only lost close games, beat Xavier and features one of the best players in the country in forward Vince Hunter. He had a game-high 18 points, a game-high 12 rebounds and two steals despite fouling out about midway through the second half.

Miller doesn’t seem to think the Wildcats are in the same class as Kentucky or Duke, but they can’t be far off.

“We’re not good enough to blow UTEP out at home,” Miller said. “I don’t know who is—maybe Kentucky or Duke—but it’s going to be a hard fought game, especially with the crowd like that.”

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Follow James Kelley on Twitter.

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