LAS VEGAS – Although Arizona was able to navigate its way to victory without starting guard Kerr Kriisa against Colorado, coach Tommy Lloyd’s eyes were teary after the game.
It was a reaction to the pride that coursed through his veins about his coaching staff’s preparation, about his players who stepped up and about the support of fans who made T-Mobile Arena feel more like a second McKale Center.
“I want to give my staff a ton of credit. We did some things we’re not traditionally comfortable with today,” Lloyd said after the 82-72 victory in the Pac-12 Men’s Basketball Tournament semifinal game. “Those are emotional things, what those guys mean to me, but they had some great ideas, and we hung with it.”
The Arizona crowd was electric from start to finish and made an impact. It’s easier to play at a neutral site when the crowd is in your favor. The opposite is true for the team on the other side of that coin, in this case, Colorado.
“It’s hard to do against a team like that, especially playing in almost an away game, it felt like,” Colorado forward Jabari Walker said.
Arizona received standout performances from forward Azuolas Tubelis and guard Justi Kier, who filled in the starting role for the Kriisa, who injured his ankle a night earlier. Tubelis gave the Wildcats 20 points and 11 rebounds, including 18 points in the first half.
“We have some plays where I have a chance to go find myself. I have other options,” Tubelis said. “But they guided me that I was able to drive the ball. So, I just drove the ball and made decisions.”
Kier had 13 points, five rebounds and three assists but his game involved much more than what showed up on the stat sheet. Although this is his first year with Arizona, Kier is in his sixth year of Division I basketball. His leadership and relentless pursuit of the basket helped drive Arizona to victory.
Even without stepping foot on the court, Kriisa made an impact on the game. Kier gave credit to Kriisa for giving him confidence before and throughout the semifinal meeting.
“We talk all the time. He was just like: ‘You’ve got this.’ That’s all he was telling me. ‘You’ve got this. I don’t need to tell you anything. I know you’ll go out there play great,’ ” Kier said. “I started asking him questions at halftime. ‘Just what do you see out there? Are you seeing anything I miss?’ He was like: ‘Go out there, you’re good. You’re doing good. They’re shooting the ball well right now. And that’s a great team. Colorado is a great team.’”
Colorado made it tough on Arizona throughout the entire game. The Buffaloes shot 16 of 32 from three, including five from Walker just in the first half. But the Wildcats were able to stifle that hot 3-point shooting by holding Colorado to just 8 of 30 from two-point range and only allowing 10 free throws.
It was truly Arizona’s defense that was the difference, forcing 24 turnovers and outrebounding the Buffaloes 36-27. In the end, the size and physicality of Arizona was just too much for Colorado.
Controlling the glass, getting easy looks inside and forcing Colorado to foul were the keys of the game. Plus, Arizona shot 24 of 25 from the free throw line.
“It’s a game of averages. It’s great. Step up and make them,” Lloyd said. “The other thing that disrupted it was fouls. And that’s a sneaky thing that’s undervalued in this game, is pinning fouls on the other team’s best players.”
Arizona will play in the Pac-12 championship Saturday against UCLA. The Wildcats are seeking their first Pac-12 title since the 2017-18 season.
Can the Arizona crowd create the atmosphere it has displayed so far in this tournament against a UCLA fan base which has also showed up to this event?