TUCSON, Ariz. — Arizona overcame its shortcomings through the season’s first 12 games thanks to a smothering defense that always seemed to be at its best when things got tight.
But when the Wildcats’ defense let them down against UNLV, it left them not only defeated, but surrounded by opposing fans who stormed the court.
The difficulty of getting through the crowd is nothing compared to what they’ll go through until their next game is played.
With 11 days off before facing rival Arizona State, there won’t be much of a break during the holiday break for the third-ranked Wildcats (12-1).
“There’s going to be some really, really hard days in McKale Center for the next 10 to 12 days,” coach Sean Miller said. “We’re going to find out who wants to play hard, who wants to play defense and who doesn’t.”
Defense has been the cornerstone of Miller’s teams since he arrived in the desert, helping the Wildcats reach the Sweet 16 twice in the past three seasons.
They leaned heavily on their defense over the season’s first two months, helping them pull out victories when the offense wasn’t in sync and the free throws weren’t falling. Some of the wins were impressive, too, including Kansas State and San Diego State in the Maui Invitational, and Gonzaga in a top-10 matchup at McKale Center.
Arizona went into Tuesday’s game a favorite over UNLV, a young, athletic team that had played inconsistently though its first 10 games.
— Sean Miller
Instead of rolling over, the Rebels attacked the Wildcats, playing more aggressively throughout.
UNLV’s length and athleticism gave Arizona all kinds of trouble. A good rebounding team, the Wildcats allowed UNLV to grab 16 more boards, including 14 on the offensive glass that led to 19 second-chance points. As they have all season, they also struggled to make free throws, going 16 for 27 from the line.
The 71-67 loss ended Arizona’s 39-game regular-season nonconference winning streak.
“When you take a loss like that, you really make sure you lock in and focus,” said junior forward Brandon Ashley, who had not lost a nonconference game at Arizona before Tuesday. “At this point, it really opens up everybody’s eyes that we’re not unbeatable, one of those teams that’s untouchable.”
That’s what Miller is hoping.
He said before the season that the Wildcats were not nearly as good as the preseason hype — they were ranked No. 2 in The Associated Press poll — and could get off to a rocky start as they tried to build some team chemistry.
The rocky start never quite materialized. Despite the losses of Nick Johnson and Aaron Gordon, the Wildcats worked their way through a difficult schedule and appeared to be headed toward a third consecutive undefeated nonconference season.
Still, there were plenty of concerns for Miller when the Wildcats were winning, and now that they’ve lost, he has an 11-day window to motivate and mold his deep, talented team for the rest of the season.
Defense will likely be the place Miller starts. Arizona has been good this season, but it is not nearly in the same place as it was last year when it had Johnson and Gordon, two of the nation’s best defenders.
The Wildcats also need to find ways to get the ball in good positions down low to 7-foot center Kaleb Tarczewski more consistently and knock down perimeter shots with more regularity to prevent defenses from packing it in.
And, of course, the free throws. The Wildcats are shooting 65 percent from the line and have had several close games that would have been much more comfortable had they made more foul shots.
“When you get that sick feeling, when they storm the court, how it feels when the horn goes off, there’s nothing that simulates that,” Miller said. “Moving forward, we have an ideal opportunity to get their attention, and we have to figure out what can make us better.”