Without the defensive contributions of freshmen Aaron Gordon and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson in Sunday’s game against Utah, Arizona men’s basketball could very well have suffered its first loss of the season.
No. 1 Arizona (20-0, 7-0 Pac-12) overcame a double-digit deficit during a sloppy first half to ultimately defeat the Utes 65-56.
The rebounds proved to be the game changer, as the Wildcats struggled on offense but the freshmen helped extend plays. Gordon and Hollis-Jefferson combined for 12 of the team’s 20 offensive rebounds and contributed to the Wildcats’ 19 second-chance points.
“They were monsters on the glass,” shooting guard Nick Johnson said. “If they can do that every night, or even every other night, it would be great for our team.”
Gordon, the team’s starting small forward currently leads the team with 56 offensive rebounds this season and has pulled down a team-high 100 defensive rebounds. He also has 19 blocks, the 10th most of any freshman in program history.
Hollis-Jefferson, the team’s sixth man, ranks second on the squad with 50 offensive rebounds and is averaging 5.5 boards per game. He compiled five offensive rebounds last weekend. Head coach Sean Miller said when the game becomes more physical, Hollis-Jefferson really has a chance to shine, calling him a “great talent.”
“In a game like [Sunday night’s], it was perfect for Rondae because the more physical of a game it is, [the more] he’s comfortable — and you can really see it,” Miller said.
While Arizona’s shooting against the Utes turned out to be subpar — 24-for-60 from the field (40 percent) compared to an average 49 percent accuracy over the UA’s first 19 games — the Wildcats compensated by relying on their defensive abilities to out-rebound Utah 40-29.
Although the Utes pulled down the same amount of defensive rebounds as Arizona, the Wildcats recorded more than twice the amount of offensive rebounds as Utah.
“It’s tough, but [it’s] what we signed up for: to get at it and dive for loose balls. We’re warriors,” Jefferson said. “These guys depend on my energy and I try to bring it as much as possible.”
Johnson leads the way
In his third year playing for Arizona’s nationally acclaimed men’s basketball team, Johnson has been thriving in his role as the team’s leader on and off the court. The Gilbert, Ariz., native is a huge reason the Wildcats have an undefeated record.
In Sunday evening’s post-game press conference, Miller proclaimed that once again, Johnson was the best player on the court.
“He did everything offensively and defensively,” Miller said. “He’s a terrific player right now.”
Johnson, who scored a game-high 22 points in leading the Wildcats over the Utes, has improved his play this year. The 6-foot-3, 200-pound guard is averaging 16.7 points (up from 11.5 last year) and 3.5 rebounds per game this season.
“This summer I worked on my floater a lot and I’ve been using that a lot this year,” Johnson said. “That’s just one of the many things. With the team that we have this year, it’s a little bit easier.”
—Follow Evan Rosenfeld @EvanRosenfeld17