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No. 1 Wildcats roar, deliver a Badgers butt-kicking

Anthony Gimino Avatar
December 9, 2023
Arizona guard Caleb Love celebrates a basket against Wisconsin. (Zachary BonDurant-USA TODAY Sports)

The game was tied at 23. The Arizona Wildcats’ run started with a Jaden Bradley 3-pointer.

And then Oumar Ballo made a short jumper. Caleb Love drained a 3-pointer. A little bit later, Pelle Larsson nailed a 3-point shot. Love roared to the basket with a one-handed, fast-break dunk. Ballo — throw it down, big man! — finished off an alley-oop dunk.

There would be more.

Love banked in a 3. Ballo made a layup. Larsson hit two free throws. And then Kylan Boswell stepped in to a long 3-pointer to end the half.

And there it was. An epic Arizona Wildcats’ Run of Death.

Arizona, playing as the No. 1 team in the country for the first time in nearly a decade, played like a No. 1 team should – and more – using a 25-8 run over the final 8:32 of the first half to absolutely demolish No. 23 Wisconsin 98-73 on Saturday at McKale Center.

Good heavens. The speed at which Tommy Lloyd’s team can strike is breathtaking.

“I just love this group,” Lloyd said.

“I love the force we play with. I love the depth we have. Obviously, I love the physicality and it’s been one of the best groups I’ve ever been around at executing a game plan. And that’s been really cool.”

Let’s be clear. Stuff like what happened Saturday – 98 points on 58.3 percent shooting, including 12 of 26 from 3-point range — doesn’t happen to the Badgers. Wisconsin’s whole deal for many years is smart play, a glacial pace and defense, defense, defense.

The Wildcats to Wisconsin: Whatever.

Arizona rebounded and ran, defended and dunked, pressured and passed to the open man. It was a clinic against a Wisconsin team that beat then-No. 3 Marquette a week earlier and followed up with a victory at Michigan State.

The 98 points were the most given up by Wisconsin in nearly 30 years. You have to go back to the second round of the 1994 NCAA Tournament, when the Badgers allowed 109 to Missouri (which would later fall to Arizona in a regional final).

“I told our guys today, I don’t need any heroes,” said Lloyd, whose team piled up 26 assists.

“I don’t need anybody to stand out above anybody else. But at the end of the day, I want people to say, ‘That Arizona basketball team kicked some ass.’”

PHNX Wildcats podcast host Mike Luke breaks down the big win with John Schuster and Ben White.

Wildcats impose their will

With UA legends Steve Kerr and Terry Francona sitting courtside, and the Wildcats wearing their throwback 1997 uniforms, Arizona turned back the clock to the Lute Olson glory days. All five starters scored in double-figures, led by Larsson’s 21. He made all four of his 3-point tries. Arizona was a few statistical quirks away from having three guys post double-doubles.

Ballo had 15 points and nine rebounds (as well as three blocked shots). Keshad Johnson had 11 points and nine boards. Boswell scored 10 points to go with nine assists. Love filled up the box score with 20 points, seven rebounds, five assists and two steals.

“I feel like we have a lot of guys with a great head on their shoulder,” Love told ESPN after the game. “Coming into this game, we know we’re No. 1, but we still gotta be humble, we still gotta play our best because there is a target on our backs.”

Lloyd said he thinks the Wildcats are “in the great category” when it comes to defense. Also great: The Wildcats’ size, depth, athleticism, toughness, basketball IQ and togetherness. And when they shoot from deep like they did against Wisconsin … well, it’s hard to see anybody beating them.

ESPN analyst Jay Bilas, during the game, explained why Arizona looks like the No. 1 team in the country to him.

“Just because of the depth and the pace they play with,” he said.

“They’ve got really good options with their bigs. Their guards are so reliable. Everybody is going to have a bad shooting night, but I think Arizona … because they’re so much better defensively this year over last year is so much more versatile. Arizona is much more capable of winning when they’re not having a great scoring night.”

So, Arizona did indeed exorcise some Wisconsin ghosts of NCAA past. And, now, it’s on to the next one – No. 4 Purdue next Saturday in Indianapolis. (And then Alabama in Phoenix, and FAU in Las Vegas).

“I feel like we’re right where we need to be,” Lloyd said, before adding, “What makes this job cool is you don’t get too much time to rest on your laurels.”

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Top photo: Arizona guard Caleb Love celebrates a basket against Wisconsin. (Zachary BonDurant-USA TODAY Sports)

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