LAS VEGAS, NV-So this is what the Arizona Wildcats do for an encore. A day after arguably their most well-rounded victory in the Pac-12 Conference Tournament quarterfinals, the ‘Cats used a strong second half to pull away from Colorado 63-43 and advance to the championship game Saturday afternoon.
Here are five things we learned in the win:
1. No Hangover in Sin City: If Thursday’s one-sided win over Utah wasn’t a clear indicator of how refreshed and re-focused the ‘Cats are Friday night left no doubt where this team is physically and mentally going into Saturday’s Pac-12 Tournament title game against UCLA. After Saturday’s loss at Oregon the players were given two Sunday and Monday off to clear their mind and rest their bodies after a grinding regular season. Even when CU had an answer to their mini-runs early, few inside MGM Grand Garden Arena believed by the end Arizona would be challenged.
2. Air Gordon: Not that he needs it but freshman Aaron Gordon could make a pretty nice highlight tape from his 33 minutes on the floor Friday night at MGM Grand Garden. The sensational freshman from San Jose set the tempo at both ends using his length and athleticism to block shots defensively then turned said defense into offense either finishing the break himself or setting up teammates with his vision. Nick Johnson may be the Pac-12 Player of the Year but Gordon’s value can’t be understated for Sean Miller’s team as evidenced by his final stat line Friday: nine points, nine rebounds, three assists, three blocks and three steals.
3. Movin’ on Up: Fellow freshman Rondae Hollis-Jefferson continues to be a spark plug off the bench for Arizona. He scored 12 points and grabbed eight rebounds and most importantly, made game-changing plays including extra effort plays keeping balls alive and doing things which don’t always appear in the box score. “He gives his heart and soul on defense,” Miller explained. “On offense, it’s not about scoring for him. It’s about passing and he’s one of our best offensive rebounders.”
4. Off the Bench: Sooner or later Arizona will need to lean on their bench, particularly next week when the tournament starts. Senior Jordin Mayes had some nice moments scoring six points and the ‘Cats reserves outscored Colorado 18-6.
5. Buffalo Soldiers: Give Thad Boyle and his team a ton of credit. Playing their third game in three nights with close tourney wins over USC and Cal, CU took the UofA’s best punches for 30 minutes and kept coming back. Despite their poor shooting in the first half, Colorado kept it close thanks to Xavier Johnson who led all scorers with nine points at the break. “I thought in the first half we really battled,” Boyle said afterwards. The Buffs have been playing most of the season without leading junior scorer Spencer Dinwiddie and still managed 23 wins in the balanced Pac-12. They’re headed to March Madness (likely as an eight or nine-seed) and deservedly so.