Arizona battles back against Huskies to remain perfect
It took a little while, but Arizona men’s basketball woke up and won its first early home game of the season, holding off Washington 71-62 Saturday afternoon.
The No. 1 Wildcats (15-0, 2-0 Pac-12 Conference) surpassed last year’s 14-0 start by coming from behind in a game that featured six ties and nine lead changes.
“That’s what good teams do: We battle through adversity,” junior guard Nick Johnson said.
Wildcats head coach Sean Miller said the Wildcats’ defense and rebounding wear teams down.
“You have to judge us based on what we do for 40 minutes, and we can wear you down with our size and our defense, I think,” Miller said.
Johnson led the way with a career high 24 points, four assists, four rebounds and two steals.
“Nick’s obviously our team’s heart and soul – does so many things,” Miller said.
Johnson downplayed his offensive success, however.
“I’m just trying to make shots; it’s as simple as that,” Johnson said.
Freshman forward Aaron Gordon had 18 points and 11 rebounds. He had 10 rebounds in the second half.
Gordon said he was determined to improve on his one first half rebound.
“It’s something I pride myself on, so I was mad about that,” Gordon said.
Miller said Gordon doesn’t point fingers at anyone.
“Aaron Gordon never gets upset at anyone but himself,” Miller said. “I’ve never seen a kind like it.”
The Huskies (9-6, 1-1) shot 55.6 percent from the field in the first half and had 17 rebounds, while Arizona shot 39.3 percent and had 12 rebounds. UW led 35-33 at halftime.
The Wildcats pulled away in the second half, though.
“That’s just attitude of our team: We won’t give up,” Johnson said.
Gordon said the reason Washington’s shorter big men had a rebounding edge early on was because they are bulky and crafty.
“Their four and five men are really big bodied players – have a lot of real estate, you know?” Gordon said.
Sophomore forward Brandon Ashley had nine points and three rebounds.
C.J. Wilcox led the way for the Huskies with 20 points.
“He had 20, and we did everything we could to stop him,” Miller said. “He’s a really, really good player.”
Forwards Shawn Kemp Jr., who fouled out, and Perris Blackwell, who had four fouls, were in foul trouble for the Huskies.
“It was important,” Miller said about UW’s foul trouble.
Both teams shot 42 percent, and Arizona won the rebounding battle 38-34. UW had 15 turnovers compared to the UA’s 11, and the Wildcats shot 81 percent from the free-throw line to UW’s 83 percent.
Johnson and Gordon downplayed the noon tip-off, after the Wildcats had played at 8 p.m. on Thursday, as a source for their slow start.
“We’re young kids; we live for this,” Johnson said. “As the number one team in the country, everyone is coming for you and giving you their best shot. Games are fun.”
The Wildcats are expected to keep the No. 1 ranking for the fifth week in a row before they travel to the Los Angeles schools next week.
“We’re carrying that right now – it’s not a burden – I think we fully expect that we’re going to get the other team’s best shot. It should bring out the best in us,” Miller said. “People show up to McKale Center, and they’re excited right now.”
UA president Ann Weaver Hart who was in attendance said it was a nerve-racking but exciting game.
“A game like that feels a little bit like a treadmill test when you’re a person of my age, but it was a very exciting game and I want to congratulate the coaching staff and the men for really stepping up when they were challenged,” Hart said.
McKale renovation donations keep coming
After the game, the UA announced that it received an anonymous $8 million “challenge gift” toward the renovation of McKale Center.
The challenge gift is to encourage others to give, and if it is matched, the UA will get $8 million.
Last month, Arizona announced it had raised $12.6 million toward the face-lift.
“McKale is a wonderful feature of our great athletics program,” Hart said. “I was going to use the word ‘icon,’ but I’m afraid that the frayed edges around McKale are part of iconic reality for all of us, and it is something that has needed an uplift for a long time.”
Arizona has raised $1.6 million toward the challenge.
If the UA raises the $8 million, then it will have raised $28.6 million toward its $30 million goal for the first phase of the McKale renovation.
Athletics director Greg Byrne said the rest of Phase I of the McKale renovation will begin May 2014 after part of it, the new scoreboard, debuted this week.
Miller said you don’t have to build a new arena if you have a good atmosphere to take on the look of a new arena.
“You saw from our screen that the big board makes a difference,” Hart said. “You can feel it.”
Byrne said donors don’t have to be giving six figure gifts to help.
“Every person can make a difference,” Byrne said.
Follow James Kelley @jameskelley520