Sophomore power forward Brandon Ashley shot 5-for-7, scored 15 points, added six rebounds and carried the No. 1 Arizona Wildcats on his back as Arizona regained its composure after a slow start to defeat New Mexico State 74-48 in McKale Center Wednesday evening.
Four Wildcats scored in double digits while New Mexico State only saw starting guard Daniel Mullings break single digits.
Ashley, along with Arizona’s other big men – sophomore center Kaleb Tarczewski and freshman forward Aaron Gordon – combined for 23 of the Wildcats’ 32 points and eight of Arizona’s 20 rebounds in the first half. Freshman forward Rondae Hollis-Jefferson continued to provide the Wildcats with relentless intensity and hustle on the court and contributed with 12 points, eight rebounds, three assists, two blocks and a steal over 23 minutes of play.
“Rondae Jefferson was outstanding. He made big plays, and did it in all facets of the game,” head coach Sean Miller said. “I also thought Brandon Ashley [had a great game]. It’s easy for him to score – they chose not to guard him – he’s too good of a player. If he wouldn’t have been in foul trouble, he would have had 25 to 30 points because he took what the defense gave.”
After trailing New Mexico State (7-5) by as much as five early in the first period, Arizona (10-0) began to find its rhythm and quickly gained momentum to lead 32-24 at halftime despite committing seven turnovers.
“We just had to make the adjustment,” Ashley said. “They did a triangle-and-two, one-two-three and they went man at some point, so you had to take the changes to see what they were in.”
Ashley, a San Francisco, Calif. native, compiled double digits for the eighth time this season while sinking both of his free throw attempts and all three of his 3-point attempts. However, he accumulated a team-high four of Arizona’s 13 overall turnovers.
Tarczewski picked up his seventh double-digit performance of the year, shot a flawless 5-for-5 from the field to score 14 points and had five rebounds.
Gordon continued his recent struggles at the free-throw line and missed his first two attempts from the stripe while shooting 1-for-6. While he has converted only five of his past 18 attempts from the line, he enjoyed modest success from the field and still managed to come up with 11 points and four rebounds while adding a block, steal and assist.
Arizona continued to gradually break the game open and led NMSU at one time by 26 points. With 5:00 minutes remaining in the game, Arizona held a commanding 22-point lead.
Junior guards T.J. McConnell and Nick Johnson accounted for 62.5 percent of Arizona’s assists and orchestrated an offensive onslaught that converted 51.8 percent of field goal attempts, 40 percent of three point attempts and 63.2 percent of free throw attempts. McConnell shot 4-of-8 from the field, scored nine points, and added six assists, three rebounds and three steals. Johnson put up eight points, four assists and a block, but found himself in foul trouble for the third time this year.
With 11:11 left in the second half, Johnson had already amassed four fouls, and with 4:09 remaining on the clock, he fouled out for the first time this season.
Arizona faces tough road test at Michigan
The Wildcats look to maintain the nation’s top ranking for another week when they travel to Ann Arbor to face Michigan this weekend in what is expected to be one of Arizona’s toughest road tests this season.
The Wildcats face Michigan at 10 a.m. MST on CBS.
Arizona (10-0) leads Michigan (6-3) in the all-time series 6-2, but the two have never faced each other on the Wolverines’ home court. The Wildcats went 27-8 last year and earned a No. 6 seed in the NCAA tournament before losing in the Sweet 16 to Ohio State. The Wolverines had a 31-8 record last year and lost in the NCAA championship against Louisville.
While both team started the year firmly in the top 25 rankings, Michigan has suffered three key losses to Iowa State, Charlotte and No. 10 Duke and has recently fallen from the rankings.
“They’ve played a competitive schedule, and, because of that, I know that they have probably improved each and every week of their non-conference season,” Miller said. “It will be one of the stiffest tests we’ve had all along. They were in the national championship game a year ago, and they are a perennial NCAA tournament team. Michigan speaks for itself.”
—Follow Evan Rosenfeld @EvanRosenfeld17