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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

Column: Dominant ‘Cats have stepped up play

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Arizona men’s basketball guard TJ McConnell (4) animatedly talks with teammates Gabe York and Brandon Ashley during Arizona’s 90-56 win against Oregon in McKale Center on Wednesday. McConnell and the Wildcats have stepped up their overall performance during the team’s five-game winning streak.

It was important for the Arizona men’s basketball team to take the Oregon Ducks seriously. A Wednesday matchup before a Friday revenge matchup is a classic example of a trap game. Instead of laying an egg, the Wildcats destroyed the Ducks 90-56 behind a dominating defensive performance. 

Six Wildcats scored in double figures, with reserve Gabe York leading the way with 16 points. However, point guard T.J. 

McConnell exemplified the team’s performance best with one play in the second half.

McConnell jarred the ball loose from an Oregon player, dove to secure the possession and threw a pass to a streaking Stanley Johnson for an and-one layup that got the McKale Center crowd up on its feet. McConnell stood up, yelled with a fiery rage and started to walk toward the ZonaZoo. He put his chest behind another yell and the crowd erupted with a furor reminiscent of the Gonzaga and Utah games.

After the game, I asked McConnell what that play was like and, a la Seattle Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch, his first response was, “I’m just here so I don’t get fined.” 

“I looked up and Stanley was streaking down the court,” McConnell said. “I threw it to him and he made a great play and got the crowd ignited. I went to a dark place to kind of quote Marshawn Lynch a lot, go into beast mode and just try to ignite the crowd a little bit.”

To put that play into perspective, it did not come at a pivotal juncture of the game. The Wildcats held a lead in the 20s and McConnell was still diving for the kind of hustle plays that made Wednesday’s win so special. 

Plays like that point to why Arizona has picked up the pace since the Oregon State loss on Jan. 11. In many ways, that loss opened up the players’ eyes in a way that the UNLV loss did not. 

The UNLV loss came at a point where it wasn’t as surprising to see the upstart Runnin’ Rebels take down the then-undefeated Wildcats. The debacle that was the trip to Corvallis, Ore., was much, much more surprising. 

Arizona head coach Sean Miller said the team struggled to defend players one-on-one and couldn’t execute offensively. The Wildcats have put up games of 89 points, 73 points and 90 points in the last three games to take down three conference foes.

Offensive balance has taken ahold of Miller’s team in a way that the players say is fun to participate in. In essence, the Wildcats are playing the way most people figured they’d play before the season began. 

“That kind of just shows that we can have those kind of nights on any given night,” McConnell said. “That four or five guys are scoring in double figures … shows how lethal we can really be.” 

When the ball tips on Friday between Oregon State and Arizona, I have no doubts the Wildcats will move on from Wednesday’s win. In many ways, Oregon State could not be more different than Oregon. Where the Ducks look to push the tempo, the Beavers look to slow the down the game and run their sets.

Add in their matchup zone, and that completely different look will surely force Miller and the Wildcats into a more deliberate offensive mindset. However, according to Miller, the Wildcats have to be ready for a matchup with a team that has already outplayed them. 

“We have to certainly be ready for an outstanding team, … a team that beat us, and beat us because they played well the last time,” Miller said. “Friday night at eight o’clock, we’re up again.”

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Follow Roberto Payne on Twitter.

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