Wildcats double down with effort in Vegas, advance to Pac-12 tournament title game

Arizona’s Oumar Ballo displays a look of confidence during his team’s 78-59 win over Arizona State. (Photo by Nikash Nath/Cronkite News)

LAS VEGAS – Two weeks ago at McKale Center, the home-court advantage was not enough to give the Arizona Wildcats a win over their in-state rival. Just like the previous night, the Wildcats faithful showed up in force on Friday. The fans dressed in bright red trickled into empty seats within the last five minutes of the UCLA-Oregon matchup.

The electric atmosphere combined with the dominance of big men Azuola Tubelis and Oumar Ballo propelled Arizona to a 78-59 victory over Arizona State. Out of the gate, Tubelis led the way with six of the team’s first 10 points, which provided a four-point cushion at the first media timeout. The impact the two had on this game was clear, as Arizona State was able to take the lead for a short time when they went to the bench in the first half.

ASU forward Warren Washington scored only eight points, half as many as he did in the previous matchup, primarily thanks to the stellar defense and raw strength of Ballo.

“Credit to Ballo, he’s obviously a really good player,” Washington said. “​​He’s a handful and I just felt like today he did a really good job and I felt like the last two matchups I definitely … felt like I played better one-on-one.”

Arizona Wildcats forward Azuolas Tubelis, right, drives toward the basket as ASU’s Devan Cambridge defends in Las Vegas Friday night. (Photo by Nikash Nath/Cronkite News)

In addition to their defensive prowess, the two forwards were two of the top scorers, as Tubelis tallied a team-leading 17 points while Ballo tied for second with 14. Ballo also led the team with 10 rebounds while Tubelis had nine.

“It’s not really that surprising for us because we work on that in every practice,” Tubelis said. “We made those paint points and then that just opened up for our guards.”

Once again, Arizona took advantage of a balanced scoring attack. In the first half alone, five individuals had six points before four players finished the game in double figures. Forty of the 78 total points came in the paint, again emphasizing the important role of the big men.

“When you got two bigs like we have, I think the smart thing is to feed ’em,” Wildcats coach Tommy Lloyd said. “They’re seeing tons of different coverages and double packages and stuff like that, and then they’re creating shots.”

Another question mark entering the game was the status of Kerr Kriisa. The junior guard had a quiet scoring night as well as a shoulder injury the night before but was in the starting lineup for Friday’s game. Kriisa attempted only four shots of which he made one, but placed more of his focus throughout the game on distributing to open teammates.

Arizona coach Tommy Lloyd was impressed by how his team played, especially late in the game. (Photo by Nikash Nath/Cronkite News)

“Kerr’s a winner. … I watched him make threes at shoot-around today, so I don’t know how much of a physical thing it is, how much of a mental thing it is,” Lloyd said. “I know this. When it’s on the line if he has an open look, I usually feel pretty good.”

Given their impressive resume built throughout the regular season, in which they finished 25-6 rand anked eighth in the Associated Press poll, the Wildcats were a lock for the NCAA tournament. On the other side of the court, however, Arizona State was on the bubble and needed every win possible to make its case for a tournament bid. Though the official decision won’t be made until Sunday, the fate of the Sun Devils’ season is still up in the air.

“I feel like they’re a tournament-worthy team,” Lloyd said about ASU. “If you match up with them in the NCAA tournament, you’re not going to sleep good. They are a difficult team to play against, and I think that’s a team that can win NCAA tournament games without a doubt in my mind.”

Now, a rematch of last year’s Pac-12 tournament championship game is set, as Arizona will take on UCLA Saturday night at 8:30 p.m. MST. The Wildcats, last year’s No. 1 seed, defeated the No. 2 seeded Bruins 84-76. This year the script is flipped, as UCLA earned the top spot in the seeding while Arizona is No. 2. For the second straight day, the Wildcats will face an opponent that they lost to in their previous matchup in the regular season. UCLA won the March 4 contest at Pauley Pavillion 82-73.

“I’m sure it’s going to be two teams that are probably a little bit worn down, probably both facing some injuries, but that’s kind of how tournament basketball is in the postseason,” Lloyd said. “We know it’s going to be a great challenge and we look forward to the opportunity to play on the big stage.”

Paul Schulz pawl shults (he/him)
Sports Broadcast Reporter, Phoenix

Paul Schulz expects to graduate in May 2024 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism before pursuing master’s in mass communication. Schulz is the president of Inferno Intel and has interned with Arizona’s Family and Varsity Sports Show in broadcasting and production roles.

Nikash Nath nih-KAUSH nath
Sports Visual Journalist, Phoenix

Nikash Nath expects to graduate in May 2023 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism. Nath, who is assigned to the Cronkite sports bureau this semester, has interned with Arizona Sports and Times Media Group.