Arizona men's basketball was expected to cruise through a Wooden Legacy field this week in Anaheim that lacks the star power of previous seasons.
While the Wildcats were put to the test Friday night once again, they grinded their way to a 92-82 victory over Penn to secure a place in the championship game Sunday night against Wake Forest thanks to a masterful performance once again from Nico Mannion and the re-emergence of big man Chase Jeter.
Penn came ready to go, hitting their first five shots from the floor to jump out to an early 13-9 lead. A quick 12-2 run put Arizona back in front 21-15 with 11:09 remaining, paced by the strong play down low from Jeter.
After struggling for much of the season to get going offensively, the senior knocked down all four attempts from the floor in the first half to give Arizona a boost, crediting freshman Zeke Nnaji’s development as a big reason why he was able to get going.
“A lot of team’s have been scouting and seeing what he [Nnaji] is capable of,” Jeter said. “Early on tonight and last night, teams have been sending a double team at him. He’s done a good job of finding me out of the trap.”
Despite taking a lead 10-point lead with six minutes left in the first half, Arizona broke down defensively on a couple of possessions, allowing Penn to get easy layups. A visibly upset Sean Miller burned two timeouts in a little over a minute span in the half, with Penn taking the lead at 31-30 with 2:29 remaining.
Arizona used an 11-2 run the rest of the half to go into the locker room up 41-33, with Mannion connecting on a 3-pointer and jumper during the stretch to give Arizona some breathing room.
Nnaji got going in the second half once Penn big man and leading scorer AJ Brodeur picked up his third foul with 17:07 remaining, and then his fourth on the subsequent inbound pass. The Arizona freshman scored 10 points in the first six minutes to push the lead to 60-44.
Penn would not go away, with their next seven field goals all being 3-pointers to bring the score to 82-76 with 4:25 remaining.
The Wildcats defense locked in, holding the Quakers to just one made field goal the rest of the game to seal a victory.
Just like the previous night, Mannion took over when Arizona needed him to, finishing with 15 points on 7-8 shooting in the second half and 24 for the game.
“I was just trying to be aggressive and make plays,” he said. “I hit a couple and started feelings good.”
“As you would expect, he [Mannion] is going to continue to get better,” Miller said. “I sometimes laugh when I think back to the Red-Blue Game. If you had judged the three freshmen on that night and you think of who they are today, it’s night and day. All of them will continue to get more and more comfortable.”
Five Wildcats scored in double figures, with Mannion leading the way. Jeter finished with a season-high 19, Nnaji with 16, and Josh Green and Dylan Smith had 14 and 10 points respectively.
A championship will be on the line Sunday night, as the ‘Cats get a day off to prepare for the Wake Forest Demon Decons. Tipoff is set for 7:00 p.m. Arizona time on ESPN.
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