Heading into the season, it didn’t feel like there was a real pecking order to this balanced Arizona team. Now there is and it’s clear who the Wildcats’ top scoring option is.
Junior point guard James Akinjo led the team in scoring for a fifth time this season with his 22-point performance while also adding eight assists to his stat line, helping the Wildcats defeat Colorado 88-74 for its first win of the season in conference play.
“I wanted to come in and stay aggressive,” Akinjo said. “Give my team a good start in the Pac-12 … . My teammates kept giving me confidence and my coaches kept giving me confidence so I just come out with the same mindset every game.”
Akinjo was previously 3-18 from three before Monday’s game but went 5-7 from beyond the arc against Colorado, including a buzzer-beating three-pointer to cap off the first half which gave the Wildcats a 50-44 lead entering the locker room in what was an impressive offensive performance for both teams in the first half. Arizona scored 50 points and shot about 56% from the field in the first half compared to Colorado’s roughly 52% shooting and seven first-half three-pointers.
While the Wildcats continued its offensive rhythm in the second half — the Buffaloes did not. Colorado began to slump after Evan Battey dominated the paint with 14 points in the first half but was forced to hit the bench after picking up his third foul to begin the second half and his fourth foul with 10 minutes left in the game. Colorado shot about 33% in the second half and failed to string together any sort of momentum following Battey’s foul trouble, along with McKinley Wright’s struggles who shot just 4-12 from the field and left the game with an injury with under a minute left. After the game, the Wildcats' head coach Sean Miller credited Arizona’s relentless defense.
“The guy that's matched up individually, they have to be on him,” Miller said. “I thought guys who guarded [Wright] worked hard because we know how important he is to Colorado. He's a very, very good player.”
Arizona went on a 10-2 run to begin the second half and took a 63-52 lead with 13:25 left. Terrell Brown Jr. buried a corner three before making a transition layup off a steal from Akinjo which gave the Wildcats a 81-66 lead with 2:38 to play.
Brown added 12 points and seven assists without committing a turnover and has now gone six-straight games without giving the ball away.
“That's what I pride myself on,” Brown said. “Giving [Akinjo] a break … [Jamarl Baker Jr.] a break. Come off the bench and make sure everything still runs the same exact way. So that’s just something I pride myself on. Just not turn the ball over and getting everyone involved.”
Brown wasn’t the only Wildcat to limit their turnovers as Arizona turned the ball over just eight times in Monday’s win over Colorado.
“We didn't really have those head scratching turnovers,” Miller said. “We've talked a lot about trying to cut that number down and tonight, we really did that so I'm hoping it's a sign of things to come … . You play against different styles, play on the road, play at home … . You want that to be the constant where you value the ball, you take care of the ball, and especially with Terrell Brown and [Akinjo] and [Baker.] Those are three players that know how to take care of the ball and tonight, you really saw that.”
Baker scored 14 points while Christian Koloko and Jordan Brown scored 10 points each, contributing to the Wildcats’ dominant performance under the rim in which Arizona outscored Colorado 38-18 in the paint and won the rebound battle 31-30.
“We also got to the foul line 27 times and we converted 20 of the 27,” Miller said. "Having said that, you know, the percentages were also good. We won tonight because of our offense. We were clicking, we were efficient and we got contributions from a lot of players.”
Monday’s win now moves Arizona to 7-1 overall and 1-1 in the Pac-12. The Wildcats are scheduled to hit the road and travel north to play Washington on Thursday, Dec. 31, and Washington State on Saturday, Jan. 2.
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