All week the talk was about how Arizona could be ranked #1 with a win over UNLV today. Apparently the Rebels didn’t get the memo.
UNLV was on fire on the road against Arizona, hitting 64% from the field in the first half. But Arizona’s defense and leadership at the point guard position propelled them to a close 63-58 win, and the team’s first #1 ranking since 2003.
“I really want to give UNLV a lot of credit,” head coach Sean Miller said. “We were up against a very formidable foe.”
UNLV gave Arizona fits on defense, and used their individual ability to make tough shots all game.
“They had a great game plan, mixed in some triangle and two, mixed in some different things,” Miller said.
Arizona’s two best passers (TJ McConnell and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson) did major damage, while sophomores Brandon Ashley and Kaleb Tarczewski owned the paint. If it weren’t for timely contributions from each of those players, the Wildcats easily could have lost at home.
Tarczewski opened the game with six straight points, and opened up the paint from the start. Tarczewski would go on to finish with 12 points and 8 rebounds, while shooting 6-9 from the field. The sophomore big man posed a matchup problem that he was able to capitalize on, but UNLV defended him well in the second half.
Ashley continued his hot streak with 13 points and 5 rebounds, including a three pointer. He was Arizona’s most aggressive offensive player, but was slowed down by foul trouble, eventually re-entering the game with 4 minutes to play despite having 4 fouls.
Hollis-Jefferson put his all around skills on display with hard nosed rebounding and slick passing from the wing position. The freshman played admirably, racking up 9 points, 7 rebounds, and6 assists on 4-8 shooting. Hollis-Jefferson kept numerous possessions alive with his 4 offensive rebounds, a skill he has shown time and time again this year.
“One of the reasons we recruited Rondae is because he’s from Chester, PA.,” Miller said. “Those guys all seem to be hard nosed, they seem to play to win, they seem to answer the bell.”
“He almost had a triple double,” Miller said of the star freshman. “He played in a very high level game, at a very high level.”
But of course, Arizona could not have reached the #1 ranking without McConnell, the ever steady point guard. When things got rough for the Wildcats, McConnell dug Arizona out with tough defense, steals, great passes, and multiple key shots. More than anything, he displayed the fire of a team leader and put the team on his back in crunch time. McConnell deserves the highest level of respect for his performance tonight, considering what was on the line.
“TJ wont get the credit he deserves because he wasn’t a high school All-American,” Miller said. “I wouldn’t trade him for for very many players out there. He’s the heart and soul of what we do.
he plays the game to win, he had some big shots. I think he recognized that his team needed him to score.”
Though Arizona had it’s worst shooting game of the season and also it’s worst defensive game, they somehow found a way to win despite an incredible performance by UNLV, who had three players score in double figures.
“For us to fight and win is a real tribute to this team,” Miller said. “At halftime our message was real clear, to be great on defense and rebound.”
It wasn’t pretty, but Arizona was gritty and turned a potential loss into a historic win for the program, as the Wildcats will be the top team in college basketball for at least one week.