Sometimes, on the road to the NCAA tournament, you've got to do things a bit unconventionally. You've got to win without your best player, win without your coach, win in a hostile environment, win ugly, win convincingly. There's never really a blueprint, just the notion that you have to do it. That's what teams that steel themselves for a deep run into March do for themselves late in the conference season.
That's what Arizona did.
Whenever the Wildcats' season ends, no one will look at the final score of their 63-57 win at No. 13 Utah on Saturday night and stamp it with the "Most Pleasant Win" title. Far from it. The game was ugly, slow-paced, bogged down by official review after official review after official review after …
You get the picture.
Bottom line was that it's a game that Arizona had every excuse in the book to use if it walked out of the Huntsman Center with a loss and a tie atop the Pac-12 standings. Instead, it didn't. It clawed its way back into the game, just as it appeared that the Utes were beginning to pull away. It did so with Stanley Johnson playing terribly and tethered to the bench for much of the final 10 minutes.
These are the nights were you chalk it up to things not going your way and tip your cap to the guys at the other end of the floor.
Thing is, teams that make runs to the Final Four and the national championship, don't have those nights. And that might be the biggest victory that Sean Miller's team can take away from Saturday night's game.
In the NCAA tournament, when the games are all about matchups and hot shooters and split-second tactical decisions, things can often unravel quickly. Teams with poor mental makeup don't know how to react, make a bad situation worse and just like that, you're on your way back home the victim of an early-round upset.
While Arizona has lived among the cream of the crop all season long, there was a bit of a question mark as to whether or not this team had that ability to get past the bad breaks of a game to pull it out of the fire. Last year's team had significantly more pro talent than this year's squad and the results showed it: a No. 1 seed in the NCAAs, Pac-12 regular-season title, 30 wins entering the tournament.
But the toughness required to win it all? That was debated and ultimately answered, in a one-point loss in the West Regionl final against second-seeded Wisconsin.
This year's Arizona team was different. Talented, yes, but not overflowing enough to overcome mental mistakes. Its 12-0 start masked a lot, but the loss at UNLV on Dec. 23 unearthed some flaws. So did the Jan. 11 loss at Oregon State. And then the hideous road loss at Arizona State on Feb. 7.
Clinching a share of the Pac-12 title will be a nice moment to take away from this game for Miller's team. The conference hasn't been overwhelmingly terrific, but good enough to provide NCAA-rigorous tests most nights. But this was the only place that Arizona was going to be able to find out if it had the wherewithal to rescue a game on the ropes before it heads into the NCAA tournament.
The pieces to the puzzle were somewhat unexpected: Gabe York contributing valuable minutes with Johnson's struggles (and scoring 12 off the bench), out-rebounding Utah by nine and getting almost 43 percent of its offense from the free-throw line. They held Utah's star, Delon Wright, to 3-of-10 shooting—although finished with 17 points—including allowing him to touch the ball once on the Utes' final three possessions.
Conventional? For Arizona, not really.
For a team poised to make a deep run in the NCAA tournament?