The Arizona basketball team’s 63-58 victory over UNLV in its annual whiteout game Saturday afternoon at McKale Center coupled with No. 1 Michigan State’s crushing loss against unranked North Carolina last week, means the Wildcats are the favorites to claim the No. 1 spot in this week’s AP Top 25 rankings.
Arizona (9-0) entered the game against the Runnin’ Rebels (3-4) ranked No. 2 in the nation and as 16 point favorites, but UNLV put up an arduous fight and caused the lead to change 18 times during the showdown.
After compiling a team leading 50 percent three-point percentage to go along with an average of 13.0 points and 9.1 rebounds over his first eight career starts, highly heralded freshman standout Aaron Gordon was uncharacteristically absent from the stat sheet to put additional pressure on the Wildcats’ offense, which found itself down 42-39 going into halftime. While Gordon amassed four points; shot two for 10 (.200), and committed two turnovers; the San Jose, Calif. native ended up being the one responsible for finally closing the door on UNLV as he dramatically blocked junior Runnin’ Rebel guard Bryce Dejean-Jones’ jumper to thwart UNLV’s hopes at an upset in the game’s final minutes.
“[The win] gave us confidence, but also showed that we can’t take any team lightly,” junior point guard T.J. McConnell said. “UNLV is a great team, they are very well coached and came over here to play really well and almost come out of here with a victory. We just have to play hard, and that starts in practice.”
The Wildcats began in explosive fashion and struck first, recording four points and four rebounds in the first 90 seconds to lead UNLV 4-0 early on. The Runnin’ Rebels however, were not about to let Arizona walk all over them, and tied the game four times over the first half while causing the lead to change nine times.
“I really want to give UNLV a lot of credit,” head coach Sean Miller said. “It wasn’t about our team being tight or not playing hard defensively or a lack of effort or concentration; we were up against a very formidable foe. They were very prepared and had a great game plan. Offensively, they brought the pace way down and were very deliberate. We had to earn everything.”
At the first media timeout, the game was tied 6-6 and sophomore center Kaleb Tarczewski was carrying the Wildcats on his back, having flawlessly converted each of his first three field goal attempts to account for all of Arizona’s six points and one of its four rebounds.
The Wildcats were forced to stay on top of their game all afternoon as the Runnin’ Rebels kept the pressure on Arizona until the final seconds of the contest when the UA’s balanced attack became too much for UNLV to handle. Arizona found itself trailing by five points at one point in the match.
In the first half, Arizona was in the midst of a long-range shootout with UNLV and was up 20-19 due to crucial three-point contributions from sophomore forward Brandon Ashley and junior guard Nick Johnson.
After Ashley sunk a jump shot to proceed layups from Tarczewski and junior point guard TJ McConnell at the start of the second half, Arizona was back on top 45-42, but was unable to yield a comfortable lead, and soon found UNLV responding with three buckets of their own to go up 48-45.
The Wildcats found themselves clinging to a one point advantage as the score continued to fluctuate rapidly.
Ashley ended the game with 13 points, five rebounds and two assists while Johnson put up 12 points, five rebounds, two steals, and an assist despite turning the ball over a team-leading five times. Ashley found himself in foul trouble for the seventh time in nine games.
Johnson, Tarczewski, Ashley, and McConnell represented Arizona’s four double-digit providers while freshman forward Rondae Hollis-Jefferson added nine points, seven rebounds, six assists, and a steal.
McConnell scored 13 points, seven rebounds, six assists, and three steals in his most dominating and balanced performance of the year.
“[With] the way he plays the game and his ability to defend and play offense to make his teammates better; I wouldn’t trade him for very many players out there,” Miller said. “He‘s in many ways, the heart and soul of everything we do, and you really saw that in tonight’s second half.”
—Follow Evan Rosenfeld @EvanRosenfeld17