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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

Analysis column: Arizona fought like Wildcats to win 2014 EA Sports Maui Invitational

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Arizona’s Rondae Hollis-Jefferson drives on San Diego State’s J.J. O’Brien and Malik Pope in the first half.

Generally it is the Arizona football that earns the nickname “Wildcats” but UA men’s basketball showed that fight, winning the 2014 EA Sports Maui Invitational on Wednesday night.

The No. 3 Wildcats (6-0) scrapped, fought and refused to quit en route to the school’s second Maui Invitational championship with a 61-59 win over No. 15 San Diego State.

With a roster loaded with highly touted recruits, the basketball team normally doesn’t need to be scrappy like their football counterparts, but on Wednesday night they needed that refuse to quit mentality that lightly recruited football players like Scooby Wright or Jared Tevis bring.

Arizona had almost every starter in foul trouble, with combo guard Gabe York picking up four fouls and junior center Kaleb Tarczewski fouling out. UA point guard T.J. McConnell missed much of the first half too, but the Wildcats still led 32-31 at the half.

The Wildcats shot poorly— 36.5 percent from the field— and again used their defense to conquer the Aztecs. However, they didn’t have the usual rebounding edge as they out rebounded SDSU by just a 34-32 margin.

It was at the foul line where the west was won. Arizona shot 83 percent on 24 free throws attempts. While the second best in the west shot 54 percent from the line on 24 freebies as well.

Freshman forward Stanley Johnson, the only starter who wasn’t in foul trouble, saved the Wildcats, refusing to lose. He scored a game-high 18 points to go along with nine rebounds, five of which were offensive boards, had three steals and a block. Not to mention he won the tournament’s MVP award.

Johnson didn’t shoot very well from the field though, going 4-for-14, but would not be denied. He made up for that by going 9-10 from the charity stripe. He made six straight free throws down the stretch to secure the win.

UA head coach Sean Miller praised these neutral site, intense tournaments before leaving, saying the trip will pay huge dividends.

“Being able to play three games in three days on a neutral court or two games in three days and play against great competition and teams that are really good, that really tests you,” Miller said before leaving Tucson. “We’re always going to be in these events because I think it makes your team better, and I don’t want anyone to ever be able to point to our program or team and say, ‘You didn’t challenge yourselves in your nonconference schedule, therefore this is what has happened to you in March.’”

It helps their RPI, lets Arizona find themselves away from the friendly confines of McKale Center and, by facing real adversity, it prepares the Wildcats for Gonzaga, Michigan, the Pac-12 and the big dance.

It also helps the Wildcats mature immensely as a team, something they wouldn’t get feasting on cupcakes at home. The Wildcats now know they can count on reserves like point guard Parker Jackson-Cartwright and shooting guard Elliott Pitts.

UA reasserted its status as the best program in the west, with their fourth win in a row against SDSU. Those wins have come in Hawaii, San Diego and in the NCAA tournament.

It was a good trip to Hawaii for the Wildcats, who earned a vacation in paradise and will soon say “Aloha” to the Bulldogs, Wolverines and the conference of champions.

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