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The Arizona Wildcats were the tougher team.
I could stop right there. That’s it. That’s the story. The Arizona Wildcats were the tougher team.
They went on the road, in the second game of the season, to Durham, N.C., to freakin’ Cameron Indoor Stadium, to play mighty, mighty Duke, threw some early haymakers, led for nearly 30 total minutes, outmuscled the Blue Devils for a plus-12 rebounding margin, had a plus-8 edge in points in the paint, took the home team’s best late punch … and just look at which team was the last one standing.
The tougher team.
Arizona won 78-73.
“Oh,” coach Tommy Lloyd told Jeff Goodman on The Field of 68 podcast after the game, “we’ve got some dogs.”
Yep. These Cats have d-a-w-g-s.
Shall we go on?
Kylan Boswell is a dawg.
Caleb Love is a dawg.
Pelle Larsson is a dawg.
Motiejus Krivas is a really large puppy who will develop into a major, snarling dawg.
Oumar Ballo is a dawg.
Jaden Bradley is a dawg.
KJ Lewis is a dawg.
Keshad Johnson fears no man.
“Definitely,” Boswell told Goodman, “there’s some dogs out there.”
Physically, mentally and emotionally, this already looks like an Arizona team rarin’ to make a serious Final Four run. Yeah, I’ve seen a calendar. We’re not even halfway through November. Lots of stuff – lots of bad stuff can happen in the next four-plus months.
But it’s already clear that these 12th-ranked Wildcats – shouldn’t voters put them at No. 1 this week after winning at No. 2 Duke? – can play defense, can be physical, can get to the rim on offense in ways that Lloyd’s first two Arizona teams could not.
“We’re a tough team. That’s who we are. That’s in our DNA,” Lloyd said during ESPN’s halftime interview. “We’re going to come out, and we’re going to scratch and claw and fight.”
Wildcats deliver the knockout
When the Blue Devils poked ahead 67-65 on a 3-pointer with 2:11 left, with Cameron Indoor Stadium rocking, Arizona kept a possession alive with an offensive rebound and then Larsson drove baseline and bounced a pass to Johnson, who had established himself on the opposite block for a layup.
When the Blue Devils went ahead again at 69-67, it was Johnson again, this time off a feed from a driving Love, hitting a difficult short jumper over the taller Kyle Filipowski while falling down. He made the free throw to give Arizona a lead it didn’t relinquish because it made all six of its free throw attempts in the final 18 seconds.
Add this one to the list of epic games in this wonderful, thrilling, Arizona-Duke rivalry.
And add Boswell to the list of heroes: 12 points, eight rebounds, five assists and only one turnover in 33 minutes. Aren’t you glad he’s the starting point guard this year?He controlled the game when the game could have gotten out of control.
“We knew there were going to be runs,” Lloyd said in his postgame press conference, talking about Duke’s second-half charge after Arizona was up 41-33 at halftime.
“We told our guys, ‘You’ve got to be able to take punches. You can’t have a glass jaw. We knew we were going to have to take punches, but we knew we were going to keep throwing them as well. My message to the guys was, ‘It’s real simple: play with poise.’
“Then I said, ‘Why do you think I want you to play with poise?’” Lloyd continued, before providing some typical answers to that question. “‘Well, you’ll make good decisions; don’t panic; don’t let the crowd get to you.’ I said, ‘No. Play with poise because you’re the better team. Trust that you’re the better team over the course of 40 minutes.’
“And I knew that it would be a small margin but I feel like that.”
Can we get that framed? Embroidered on a pillow? Flown over Tucson on a plane banner?
Play with poise because you’re the better team.
And the tougher team, too.
Before signing off from Cameron, ESPN’s Jay Bilas said the Wildcats “showed a ton of toughness” and that he was “already jonesing” for next season’s Arizona-Duke rematch in McKale.
But I suspect Arizona fans will have something else on their minds through March … or early April.
“I love this group of guys,” Lloyd said, “and feel like we’re going to be as good as anybody in the country.”
Top photo: Arizona Wildcats center Oumar Ballo (11) reacts after scoring and being fouled during the second half against Duke (Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports)
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