TUCSON, Ariz. — A 17-point victory over the Pac-12’s last-place team left Arizona coach Sean Miller in no mood to lavish praise on his team, particularly because of the 12th-ranked Wildcats’ dubious second-half effort on defense, something that’s become a distressing pattern.
If not for Kevin Parrom’s offense, and Washington State’s lousy free throw shooting, Arizona 73-56 victory on Saturday would have been a whole lot closer. Parrom matched his career best with five 3 pointers — in six tries — scoring a season-high 19 points.
“I don’t know where we would be in this game if Kevin didn’t play the way he played,” Miller said.
The senior entered the game shooting 26 percent from 3-point range in conference play and was just 2 of 12 in his previous six outings. But he had the touch from the start this time, opening two 3s and the Wildcats (23-4, 11-4 Pac-12) led all the way.
“I was happy the first one went in,” he said, “because I don’t remember the last time I made a 3.”
Arizona was up by as many as 21 points early in the second half before the Cougars cut it to 11 late. It was that lull, which followed similar drop-offs in a litany of other contest, that perturbed the coach.
“The second half at Colorado, the second half at Utah, the second half against Cal, the second half against Stanford wasn’t very good,” Miller said. “So it’s our team is having a hard time playing very, very hard for 40 minutes. The one thing that I know is we’re not the most talented, prolific offensive team, so when we don’t play over the top hard and together, it really shows up.”
No matter that Arizona, on the surface, appeared to win in relatively easy fashion.
“You can make the point that, ‘Hey, you played a team you were supposed to beat and you had a lead at halftime and you had a lead throughout. Coach, what’s the big deal?’” Miller said.
“If you’re trying to win the regular season championship and you’re trying to win the Pac-12 Tournament and you’re trying to secure the highest seed possible that we can get in the NCAA tournament and then enter that tournament knowing that on a given day, any team’s capable of beating anyone else, we’re the team that won’t win, because we pick and choose how hard we play on defense.”
Mark Lyons, feeling a bit under the weather, added 14 points and freshman Kaleb Tarczewski had a career-best 12 for the Wildcats, who began the day tied with Oregon atop the Pac-12.
Brock Motum scored 20 points but missed six free throws for the last-place Cougars (11-17, 2-13), who lost their eighth straight. DaVonte Lacy added 10 points, eight in the second half.
Shortly after Parrom’s two 3s made it 6-0, the Cougars went exactly 10 minutes without a field goal, resulting in a 14-2 Arizona run that put the Wildcats up 20-7 on Solomon Hill’s 15-footer with 8:45 left in the half.
Angelo Chol’s 15-footer made it 26-12 with 5:24 to go in the half, then Tarczewski’s three-point play with 32.6 seconds remaining put Arizona up 35-19 at the half.
Washington State shot 35 percent and committed eight turnovers in the first half. And the Cougars were just 5 of 11 from the foul line in the opeing 20 minutes.
The second half got off to a magnificent start for Arizona, then went downhill from there.
An 8-2 spurt put the Wildcats 42-21 on Lyons’ layup with 16:47 left.
But the Cougars went on a 10-0 run to cut it to 43-31 when Brett Boese sank a 3 with 12:47 to play.
After an Arizona timeout, Parrom drove the baseline for a reverse layup to boost the lead to 45-31, ending a 4:23 scoreless drought for the Wildcats. Nick Johnson’s two free throws made it 47-31, but Lacy’s 3-pointer sliced the lead to 47-34, then he made a drive to the basket to cut it to 47-36 with 9:08 remaining. Lacy was fouled on the play but missed the free throw.
Washington State cut it to 11 two more times and Parrom responded with 3s on both occasions, the latter making it 55-41 with 6:26 left. Parrom’s final 3 put Arizona up 58-42 with 5:50 to go.
“In those moments where we really tightened up I looked out there and I didn’t see anyone that really wanted to shoot the ball,” Miller said. “ He did, and he made some big shots.”
Washington State coach Ken Bone lamented his team’s slow start but at least liked the last 20 minutes.
“I think we were the more aggressive team (in the second half),” he said. “We attacked the rim. We made a few 3s, although we still didn’t make our free throws.”
The Cougars finished 14 of 28 at the line.
Arizona plays at Southern California and UCLA next week, then wraps up regular season play at home against Arizona State. A co-title won’t do, Parrom said.
“I’m selfish. I don’t want to share with anybody,” he said. “I want to cut down the nets and be the only team in first place. We can’t control what the other team does, but on my senior night, I want to be able to cut down the net so these next three games we have to buckle up on defense and play consistently on defense — first and second half.”