ANAHEIM, Calif. — On a team led early this season by three freshman standouts, it was a pair of veterans who put an end to Arizona’s drought of early season championships.
Guard Dylan Smith had 20 points with 4-for-6 3-point shooting while center Chase Jeter had 17 points and nine rebounds to lead Arizona to a 73-66 win over Wake Forest in the Wooden Legacy championship game.
“If Dylan Smith and Chase Jeter didn’t play the way they played tonight, I don’t know if we would have left here as champions,” UA coach Sean Miller said.
It was UA’s first title in an early season multi-team event since 2014-15, when then-freshman Stanley Johnson led the Wildcats to the Maui Invitational championship.
While the Wooden Legacy event at Anaheim Arena featured crowds of barely four figures and lacked the elite competition of Maui, the Bahamas or the NIT Season-Tip Off, it was still a championship of some sort.
And for the undefeated yet still developing Wildcats, with three freshmen standouts and a host of role players still fitting into place, it was something worth celebrating.
The Wildcats took the trophy at center court, while freshman guard Nico Mannion was named the tournament’s MVP. Smith and Jeter joined him on the all-tournament team along with Penn’s AJ Brodeur and Wake Forest’s Olivier Sarr.
Back when Johnson held up the trophy at the Lahaina Civic Center, it was actually the Wildcats’ third straight early season tournament title, following wins in the in the 2013-14 NIT Season Tip-off and the 2012-13 Diamond Head Classic.
But since then until this season, UA had gone a collective 4-7 in what are now called “multi-team events,” counting their disastrous 0-fer at the 2017-18 Battle 4 Atlantis, despite having No. 1 NBA pick-to-be Deandre Ayton, and their 1-2 performance in a return trip to Maui last fall.
“We were on a tear,” Miller said Thursday, after the Wildcats escaped Pepperdine 93-91 in the first round of the Wooden Legacy. “And then if you look at the last three or four years, we haven’t been able to break through.
“Obviously, the last two years we’ve been in heavyweight tournaments and last year we were a little bit undermanned, but you come to these tournaments in hopes to learn and grow, to get some wins.”
Even at 8-0 heading into a showdown with No. 19 Baylor on Saturday, the Wildcats do have plenty to learn. They had to deal with a concussion to reserve forward Stone Gettings, who did not appear at Anaheim Arena on Friday, and rare off games from freshmen Nico Mannion and Zeke Nnaji.
Over the course of the Wooden Legacy, Arizona struggled to beat mid-majors Pepperdine and Penn just to reach the championship game and fell behind Wake Forest early by up to seven points before Smith’s shooting and some effective defense pulled the Wildcats ahead.
In the first half, Smith scored 13 points while hitting 3 of 4 3-pointers to lead Arizona to a 39-33 halftime advantage. UA then went ahead by double digits, 45-35 when Smith made a four-point play just over two minutes into the second half, hitting a 3-pointer and an ensuing free throw.
Some 45 seconds later, Josh Green dunked to give UA a 12-point lead and the Wildcats led by double-digits until Brandon Childress hit a 3-pointer with 5:13 to go to cut UA’s lead to 65-58. Wake Forest cut it to four points with 45 seconds to go but the Wildcats hit 5 of 6 free throws down the stretch to hang on.
UA wound up winning despite the fact that Mannion was just 3 for 11 from the field and Nnaji fouled out after what was his least effective performance of the season. Nnaji shot just 1 for 5 and turning the ball over five times.
Meanwhile, Wake Forest center Olivier Sarr was hurting the Wildcats inside, collecting 20 points and 11 rebounds, while the Wildcats also could not turn to Gettings to help out in the post.
Gettings wasn’t even in the building because of a concussion suffered on Friday against Penn, and Wake Forest outscored UA 30-14 in bench points while Sarr had his way often inside.
Miller even inserted freshman 7-footer Christian Koloko briefly late in the first half after not playing him at all in the Wildcats’ first two Wooden Legacy games.
Both Mannion and Nnaji had both seen better days.
Mannion had led the Wildcats into the championship game by flipping in an eight-foot runner against Pepperdine and then going 11 of 14 from all over the court on Friday against Penn. Nnaji, meanwhile, entered Sunday’s game as the No. 2 field-goal percentage shooter (77.0) in the country, going 11 for 17 over UA’s first two Wooden games.
But UA still had enough to win and, thanks to the weaknesses that surfaced this weekend, some things to work on.
For Miller, trying to craft the Wildcats into a contender for the that vastly more important tournament at of the season, that’s the best possible combination.
“Man, if you ever get three (wins, for a championship) and then also learn?” Miller said. “That’s when you really have a magical month of November.”