One of the reasons top-ranked Arizona is special is because the Wildcats defend well enough to survive nights when their jump shots won't fall.
It happened against Utah in Tucson on Sunday night. And it happened against Stanford in Palo Alto three nights later.
From the point when Arizona fell behind by seven points against Stanford with just over 12 minutes left in the second half, the Wildcats surrendered only six points on two field goals and a pair of late Chasson Randle free throws. Generating stops on 16 of Stanford's final 19 possessions enabled Arizona to overcome 36 percent shooting and escape with a 60-57 win that keeps its undefeated record intact.
"Defense was why we won," Arizona coach Sean Miller told reporters in Palo Alto after the game. "If you look at the game within the game, our ability to defend at a very high level, to get defensive stop after defensive stop when the other team really needed a score, that's what we've done from Day 1. Tonight if you say 'why did we win?' Well, that was it."
Arizona's comeback ensures the Wildcats, No. 2 Syracuse and No. 4 Wichita State will each take unbeaten records into February. The last time three teams were undefeated on Feb. 1, Indiana was on its way to an unbeaten season in 1976 and UNLV and Rutgers were both also perfect through January.
That Arizona is still blemish-free is especially impressive considering the tough schedule the Wildcats have played. They've beaten five teams either ranked or receiving votes in the latest polls including fifth-ranked San Diego State and 10th-ranked Michigan on the road and 17th-ranked Duke in Madison Square Garden.
Few of Arizona's 21 victories were any more nerve-wracking than Wednesday night's close call in Palo Alto.
The Wildcats couldn't score consistently enough against the rare opponent actually able to match their size in the frontcourt. Nick Johnson and Kaleb Tarczewski battled foul trouble. Rondae Hollis-Jefferson got sped up and out of control attacking the rim. Aaron Gordon appeared to be trying to do too much playing 15 minutes from where he grew up, a big reason he went 2 of 10 from the floor and continued to struggle shooting from the perimeter.
For a while, it looked like Stanford might capitalize.
The Cardinal were out-hustling Arizona to loose balls and out-working the Wildcats on the glass for a stretch midway through the second half, but Dwight Powell's fourth foul with 12:22 remaining served as a turning point. Arizona, third-best in the nation in points per possession allowed, stifled the rest of Stanford's scorers with its size and length, using Johnson to limit Chasson Randle and protecting the rim with Tarczewski and Gordon.
Arizona blocked four shots in the final 10 minutes of the game, none bigger than Gordon and Hollis-Jefferson both swatting away Anthony Brown's layup attempts on back-to-back possessions. Johnson also contested Randle's potential game-tying 3-pointer on the final possession of the game.
Smothering as Arizona was on defense, the Wildcats still needed some clutch offense to win and it came from Johnson. The All-American candidate sank a tough floater with 2:35 to go to give Arizona its first lead since the opening minute of the second half, then buried a 3-pointer off a Tarczewski offensive rebound with 49 seconds to play to give the Wildcats the lead for good.
Johnson shook off first-half foul trouble to finish with 16 points, five rebounds, four assists and a steal. No other Arizona player had more than 11 points.
If Arizona will leave Palo Alto celebrating a quality road win, Stanford will exit Maples Pavilion regretting the opportunity for a season-changing win it let slip away.
Victories over UConn, Oregon and Arizona might have given Stanford's profile the pop necessary to make the NCAA tournament for the first time in Johnny Dawkins' six-year tenure. Instead the junior- and senior-laden Cardinal (13-7, 4-4) probably need at least one more marquee victory to have a realistic chance of earning the NCAA bid that could save Dawkins' job at the end of the season.
For a while, Arizona appeared likely to provide that win. Only another brilliant defensive effort saved the Wildcats and enabled them to remain undefeated.
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