TUCSON, Ariz. (AP) — Arizona got pushed around, unable to score at its usual pace. The shots didn’t fall with the same regularity, the opportunities to get out on the break limited.
Forced to play Tennessee’s style, the Wildcats beat the Vols at their own game.
Azuolas Tubelis scored 19 points, Oumar Ballo added 18 and No. 9 Arizona turned the physical tables on No. 6 Tennessee for a 75-70 victory Saturday night.
“It just shows our versatility,” said Arizona’s Pelle Larsson, who had 17 points, eight rebounds and four assists. “We always want to get up and down, but teams adjust so we have to adjust.”
The Wildcats (10-1) did well to withstand the Vols’ defensive pressure and applied a bit of their own in a game that saw bodies hitting the floor nearly every trip down the floor.
Arizona took advantage of 7-foot-1 Uroš Plavšić’s foul trouble by working the ball inside to Ballo and Tubelis, building a 10-point lead midway through the second half. Tennessee pushed back, but the Wildcats had the final say, making the key plays down the stretch for their third win over an AP Top 25 opponent this season.
“We hung in there and we didn’t panic,” Arizona coach Tommy Lloyd said. “In the second half, we were a little more methodical and didn’t get panicky.”
The Vols (9-2) kept the nation’s top scoring team 17 points below its average, but had trouble with Arizona’s defense. Tennessee had two key second-half scoreless droughts missed 10 straight 3s after shooting well from the arc early.
Zakai Zeigler led Tennessee with 21 points and Olivier Nkamhoua added 16.
“We just didn’t have enough guys have good enough nights,” Tennessee coach Rick Barnes said. “We’re better than that, but give Arizona credit and we were in position to win in a tough environment..”
This Top 10 duel in the desert was strength vs. strength.
Tennessee arrived with the nation’s best adjusted defensive efficiency, according to KenPom.com, among the top five in field goal percentage against, points per game, steals and turnovers forced.
Arizona’s forte has been offense.
The Wildcats have the nation’s best adjusted offensive efficiency, leading the nation in shooting, scoring and assists per game.
The Vols were the better offensive team early, going 5 of 5 from the 3-point arc, most on penetration and kickouts to take a seven-point lead.
Arizona starting cutting off the driving lanes — three charges — and working the ball inside to Ballo and Tubelis, using a 13-4 run to tie it at 35 by halftime.
“They got those three charges where guys were out of control,” Barnes said.
Arizona kept up the defensive pressure to start the second half, holding Tennessee scoreless for nearly four minutes to take a 61-51 lead.
The Vols fought back with consecutive 3s after missing 10 straight to pull within two at 63-61, but had another scoreless drought, this one three minutes.
Arizona took advantage. Larsson scored on a three-point play and Ballo bulled his way to the basketball to put the Wildcats up 71-65.
“They fought back and made an interesting game. ” said Arizona’s Courtney Ramey, who had 13 points. “I’m just proud of the growth that we’ve made and how we responded to the run in the last four minutes, showed our growth and the potential of our team.”
Tennessee was solid defensively against the high-scoring Wildcats, but labored offensively at the wrong times to have a chance for a huge road win.
Arizona got no scoring from its bench, but the starters were good enough at both ends for an emotional home win against a top-10 opponent.
The game was physical at both ends, but had a large disparity in free throws.
Arizona shot 24 of 27 on free throws, while Tennessee didn’t shoot its first one at 15:51 of the second half and finished 8 of 10.
“I have a lot of respect for these three officials on for a long time, but I’m not real happy because I didn’t see if that way,” Barnes said. “Again, I don’t want to take away in Arizona, but we were we were doing exactly like they were. I don’t know what to say.”
Tennessee: Hosts Austin Peay on Friday night.
Arizona: Hosts Montana State on Tuesday night.
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