Rondae's bounce back is sweetened with a smile
Arizona freshman forward Rondae Hollis-Jefferson (23) reacts to a foul called on freshman forward Aaron Gordon (11) during the second half of Arizona’s 84-61 win against Gonzaga in the NCAA Tournament in San Diego on Sunday. The blowout came almost a year after Hollis-Jefferson’s high school team had its 61-game winning streak snapped.
Rondae Hollis-Jefferson smiles — a lot.
But sitting at his locker inside Viejas Arena in San Diego on Sunday, the 19-year old freshman’s ear-to ear smile quickly turned to wide-eyed fright.
Hollis-Jefferson didn’t even have a chance to take his shoes off before media members were swarming him following Arizona’s 84-61 pummeling of Gonzaga in the NCAA Tournament.
“This is crazy,” he later said. “This being my first NCAA [Tournament] appearance, it’s a great feeling. I’m just happy.”
It’s quite a different feeling than he had exactly one year ago to the day.
On March 23, 2013, Hollis-Jefferson, a then-senior at Chester High School in Chester, Pa., lost the PIAA division AAAA high school basketball state championship game 63-47 to Lower Merion high school.
The loss ended a 61-game winning streak and Chester’s two-year reign as state champions.
“It was horrible and tough,” Hollis-Jefferson said, “but it was in the past and you got to bounce back.”
Since then, Hollis-Jefferson has more than bounced back.
The Wildcats’ classified sixth man has embraced his role as Arizona’s first option off of the bench by bringing a spark and a smile with him every time he enters the game.
“When Rondae comes in, it seems good things always happen,” Wildcats head coach Sean Miller said early in the season.
Through 36 games, Hollis-Jefferson has averaged 8.9 points and 5.7 rebounds per game. His 38 blocks on the season lead the team.
What he’s done since the beginning of the NCAA Tournament has given him a reason to smile brightly.
In is first two games of the NCAA Tournament, Hollis-Jefferson has made 10 of his 12 shot attempts and scored 31 total points. He has continued to be a shot-blocking threat with six postseason rejections.
But it was Sunday’s overall performance against Gonzaga that had the media swarming for Hollis-Jefferson.
Hollis-Jefferson contributed to the team-leading 18 points and was a perfect 8-for-8 from the free-throw line, an area the team as a whole has struggled in. Even when he wasn’t in the game, he could be seen on the bench yelling to encouraging his team to play harder and run faster all while still smiling.
“We ran into a buzz saw tonight,” Gonzaga head coach Mark Few said, describing Sunday’s game. “That is an excellent basketball team.”
Hollis-Jefferson playing like a buzz saw is nothing new or special. Teammates say his relentless tenacity game in and game out has become what they expect from him, just like his smile.
So when the reporters and cameras finally got out of his grill Sunday night, Hollis- Jefferson was finally able to take his shoes off, stretch, shower off and prepare for the next battle.
Just like he had done one year ago to the day.
“This win definitely makes up for it,” Hollis-Jefferson said with a huge grin on his face. “But like the championship game, it’s in the past and now we have to focus on the next one.”
—Follow Luke Della @LukeDella