Arizona survives scare from Pepperdine, Mannion and Smith Clutch

Gary Randazzo

Arizona narrowly escaped its first game of the Wooden Legacy by outlasting a feisty Pepperdine squad, 93-91. Dylan Smith knocked down three treys late and Nico Mannion hit the game winner with two seconds remaining to lift the Wildcats past the Waves and advance to the second round of the tournament.

The Waves (3-4), led by longtime Washington Huskies head coach and former Arizona assistant Lorenzo Romar, gave the Wildcats all they could handle in Arizona’s first game away from home this season.

Colbey Ross, who finished with 20 points, hit a floater to tie the game at 91-91 with seven seconds remaining. Mannion then took the ensuing inbounds pass and drove the length of the court before hitting a running hook shot that banked into the basket off the glass. A last ditch effort from Pepperdine, from half court, fell short.

Playing without two key contributors, Pepperdine’s starting five accounted for every single point.

Skylar Chavez and Ross scored 20 points apiece, while Kameron Edwards had 21 points in the loss.

The Waves spent the majority of the game shooting above 60 percent from the floor, and finished hitting 13-of-27 from behind the 3-Point line. However, Arizona did just enough defensively to cool the Waves in the second frame (48.4% shooting), while upping its own shooting percentage to a whopping 72 percent from the floor, after intermission, to outpace Pepperdine.

Smith, who finished with a season-high 16 points, was 4-for-6 from deep, including a stretch of three-straight makes in the final 10 minutes of a game that featured 24 lead changes. The senior was complimented by Arizona’s freshmen trio, who accounted for 66 points.

Josh Green shined, finishing with a career-high 24 points, eight rebounds and five assists. Like Smith, Green sank three consecutive 3-Pointers in the second half. The frosh swingman was also a wizard in the open court, electrifying the neutral site crowd with a pair of thunderous dunks and a handful of nifty finishes in the paint.

Mannion notched his first career double-double as a Wildcat with 16 points and 11 assists, while Nnaji remained efficient with 16 points and 11 rebounds on 8-of-12 shooting.

Freshmen will be freshmen 

As amazing as Arizona’s true freshmen have been this season, it was telling to see them struggle a bit in their first game away from McKale Center. Mannion had five turnovers, where four could have literally been avoided by making the simple play versus trying to thread a needle. The other turnover was the result of not recognizing a defender trailing him on a fast break push. Nnaji also had five turnovers as the team, collectively, had 17 giveaways. Of course, Mannion ultimately hit the game winner as both he and Nnaji finished with double doubles. As for Green, he was simply outstanding, by far turning in his best offensive performance of the young season.

Numerous defensive breakdowns

Defensively, Arizona struggled. It’s easy to say Pepperdine was a hot shooting team, and they were. However, Arizona’s defensive breakdowns were making things very easy for a team that was already feeling it from the floor. Time and again, Arizona failed to defend the on-ball screen. Arizona’s big men did get caught in a few early fouls on the perimeter as they attempted to hedge, which may have caused them to be more tentative than usual. However, the on-ball guard defender was struggling as well, failing to get over the top of set screens and allowing an easier path for the ball handler to get into the body of Arizona’s big men on the hedge, leading to those fouls. Additionally, Arizona seemed confused, at times, on whether to hedge or switch off screens when it was two guards or wings involved in the screening action. This resulted in Pepperdine guards getting open look after open look behind the 3-Point arc. Finally, Pepperdine’s patience late in the shot clock served to help the Waves offense finish off possessions better than Arizona’s defense. There were plenty of possessions where Arizona was in the midst of getting a critical stop, only to see the Waves make that final extra pass to an open jump shooter on the backside of the offense.

Arizona’s offense can survive tough defensive nights

The fact Arizona can shoot 72 percent from the floor in the second half, despite struggles on defense, is not only impressive, but reassuring. Wildcat fans can certainly remember some of the tougher beats in the Sean Miller Era when the team loses games based on its offense, regardless of what’s going on defensively. This year’s club is simply different. Their offensive firepower, top to bottom, is impressive. More importantly, it makes them much more resilient than even some of Miller’s best Arizona teams.

In the final 20 minutes, Arizona was 18-for-25 from the field, and 8-for-12 from deep. For the game, Arizona finished 34-of-56 overall (60.7%) and 11-for-20 on 3-Point attempts (55%). With all the attention focused on Pepperdine’s solid shooting, the Wildcats actually finished the game a full 10 percentage points higher in shooting efficiency.

Now, where this could hurt is these Wildcats suddenly thinking they can simply outscore every opponent. There’s a difference between believing you can score on anyone and trying to win games by outscoring them. The latter will lead to some upsets, or serious wake up calls against solid defensive teams like Gonzaga, Oregon, Colorado and Washington in the weeks and months ahead. The good news is Miller won’t allow that type of thinking to set it. His goal is to continually improve this new-look Wildcats team into both a defensive stopper and an offensive powerhouse. After all, that’s the type of team that wins championships, and it’s abundantly clear that this year’s Wildcat team has the pieces to produce a championship-type of season.

Up Next: 

Arizona faces University of Pennsylvania in the semi-final game of the Wooden Legacy in Anaheim, California. Tip time is scheduled for 8:30 p.m. PST. The game will be televised on ESPN 2. 

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