TUCSON, Ariz. (AP)Montana State rotated a defender down to take away Arizona’s high-low game and packed the post with double-teams, all but daring the Wildcats to shoot from the 3-point arc.
Arizona did, showing off yet another dimension to one of the nation’s best offensive teams.
Kerr Kriisa scored 18 points and hit six of Arizona’s 10 3-pointers, helping the fifth-ranked Wildcats pull away in the second half to beat Montana State 85-64 on Tuesday night.
”We made it hard, but they went 10 for 25 from 3,” Montana State coach Danny Sprinkle said. ”If they do that, it’s going to be tough for anyone to beat them.”
The Wildcats (11-1) earned a hard-fought win over No. 8 Tennessee on Saturday and faced another fight against the scrappy Bobcats (7-6).
Arizona had some disjointed offensive stretches but wore down Montana State and spread the scoring around for its 26th straight home win. Oumar Ballo had 11 points and 10 rebounds, Cedric Henderson Jr. added 16 points and Kriisa went 6 of 9 from 3.
”We won by 20, but you still have standards you’ve got to hit,” Arizona coach Tommy Lloyd said. ”I want those standards hit more often because I want this team to be really successful.”
Montana State kept it close in the first half and made Arizona hit a rough patch with its defense in the second. The Bobcats faded with a slew of second-half fouls and 20 turnovers overall that led to 20 Arizona points.
Jubrile Belo had 18 points and RaeQuan Battle added 17 for Montana Sate, which shot 3 for 24 from the 3-point arc.
”They weren’t really forcing into many turnovers, it was just us not being ready to counter what they had going on,” Battle said. ”We were practicing, we had our scout details, it was just us messing some things up.”
The Wildcats were forced to get physical instead of playing their usual free-flowing style against Tennessee and pulled it off for a 75-70 win.
The Bobcats didn’t make it easy on Arizona, either.
The favorite to win the Big Sky Conference after going to the NCAA Tournament a year ago, Montana State made the Wildcats work for shots and limited their transition opportunities – outside of a couple of Azuolas Tubelis breakouts.
Arizona looked like it was going to pull away midway through the first half, going on a 15-4 run to go up 31-19. The Bobcats clawed their way back behind their defense, using an 11-1 run to cut the Wildcats’ lead to four.
Arizona led 44-37 at halftime thanks to a long 3-pointer by Kriisa – his fourth of the half – that had Sprinkle waving his arms in disgust at the defensive breakdown.
”Worst case, you’ve just got to give up a tough 2 in that situation because that’s just a momentum play going into the half,” Sprinkle said.
The Wildcats carried the momentum into a 9-0 run to go up 53-39, but Montana State kept the Wildcats in reach by reaching.
The Wildcats had a 1-for-11 stretch midway through the second half, but maintained their lead from the free throw line as the Bobcats racked up the fouls.
Arizona started hitting shots again after that, using an 11-2 run to go up 71-54. Montana State got no closer than 16 points from there. The Wildcats went 21 for 29 on free throws to kept the Bobcats at bay.
Montana State held the nation’s highest-scoring team in check for stretches of the game, but was doomed by turnovers and poor perimeter shooting.
Arizona had to work for the second straight game and again found a way to win against a quality opponent to extend the nation’s third-longest home winning streak.
Lloyd has been after Pelle Larsson to be more aggressive offensively.
After a couple of angry reactions to non-foul calls, Lloyd has another area he’d like the Swedish guard to address.
”Pelle is a heck of ball player. You’ve just got to tone down the drama, like trying to accentuate every foul,” Lloyd said. ”Just score the basket. The bank before, he thinks he gets fouled and it looks like somebody shot him. He’s too good of a player to be doing that.”
Montana State: Hosts Idaho on Dec. 29 to kick off its Big Sky schedule.
Arizona: Hosts Morgan State on Thursday.
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