Arizona men's basketball had not been challenged all season up to Thursday night's matchup against visiting South Dakota State.
That would soon change.
The Jackrabbits capitalized on early foul trouble from Arizona's standout freshman Zeke Nnaji and poor shot selection by the Wildcats to lead at halftime 32-29, forcing 12 turnovers and requiring the Wildcats to shoot 3-14 from three-point range.
A much different team showed up in the second half, with Arizona getting Nnaji involved and limiting turnovers to pull away in their toughest matchup so far this season, eventually winning 71-64.
An impressive streak coming to an end, a tale of two seasons for the Jackrabbits and a personal Nico Mannion highlight reel were some takeaways from the victory.
No More Streaking
Coming into Thursday’s contest, Nnaji had made both his last 17 field goals and 13 free throws, shooting a blistering 84.6% from the field on the season to lead the country.
All good things unfortunately must come to an end, with Nnaji missing his first shot and second free throw of the game to end both streaks. The freshman was in foul trouble much of the first half, picking up a second foul with 10 minutes left before halftime that forced him to the bench.
Arizona head coach Sean Miller wasn’t happy with the lack of touches following the game.
“If you lead the nation in anything, you are outstanding,“ Miller said. “When you have the nation’s leading shooter on your team and he doesn’t take one shot, not one jump hook, that’s a problem.
The Wildcats did a much better job of getting the ball to Nnaji in the second half in a position to score. All four of his made baskets and all five of his shot attempts came after halftime, as he finished with 12 points on a still efficient 4-5 from the field to start a new streak of four in a row.
Nnaji still has a long way to go if he wants a shot at the NCAA record, which is a whopping 30 consecutive makes by former Yale forward Brandon Sherrod, set in 2016.
A Year Too Late
Arizona was given all they could handle by the Jackrabbits, trailing at the half and winning by single digits for the first time all season.
Had these two teams met a year ago, things might have turned out much different.
South Dakota State was forced to reload after NCAA Tournament and NIT appearances the last two seasons. Mike Daum — the program’s all-time leading scorer and seventh-leading scorer in NCAA history — and point guard Tevin King graduated. David Jenkins was poised to return and potentially be the best player in the conference until head coach T.J. Otzelberger took the job at UNLV, where Jenkins followed.
Eric Henderson was promoted to take Otzelberger’s place and was able to bring in the national junior college player of the year in Doug Wilson, who led the Jackrabbits in scoring on the night with 15 points.
“It just goes to show that anyone can play with anyone at this level,” Mannion said following the close win. “Credit to South Dakota State. They were gritty and had us down by  in the first half. A game is a game, and anybody can play with anybody.”
Watch Your Head
Mannion brought the McKale faithful out of their seats a couple of times on the night, none more than a dunk late in the game to put an exclamation point on the victory.
With 1:03 left in the game, Mannion drove the middle of the lane and punched down a ferocious slam over a Jackrabbit defender that should surely be seen on ESPN later in the evening.
“Through the course of the game, you don’t realize you’re up 10 with one minute left,” he said. “It’s so intense down there, you don’t realize the game is almost over. I was just trying to play until the final buzzer.”
The point guard also froze and dropped his defender in the first half and sunk a three-pointer while being fouled. Mannion finished with 14 points on 4-9 shooting.
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