There might be a losing streak on the football field but not on the hardwood. The Arizona Wildcats won its fifth game in a row after its 69-61 win over the University of Texas at El Paso Miners on Saturday, Dec. 12.
The Wildcats controlled the pace of the game and entered the locker room with a 35-27 lead at halftime, despite shooting only 39% from the field and not converting a single three-pointer the entire game, going 0-9 from beyond the arc.
Those outside shooting woes didn’t matter as the Wildcats found their offensive rhythm inside the paint and at the free-throw line while also dominating the rebound battle 46-25.
“Not making a three-point shot, that’s not good,” head coach Sean Miller said. “I think you have to understand that UTEP really tried to stick to our perimeter players. When we got the ball in and around the basket, we had no post-crowd. They had no double teams. They just let our bigs go one-on-one with unlimited dribbles against their bigs.”
Arizona made 25 of its 28 free-throws and went 11-11 in the first half. Junior guard James Akinjo contributed to those impressive numbers by going a perfect 14-14 from the line. The Wildcats shot 19-21 from the free-throw line on Wednesday, Dec. 9 against CSU Bakersfield after shooting just 65% from the line in its first three games.
“That’s all we had to rely on,” Akinjo said. “Our three-point shot wasn’t falling, so we had to get to the paint and get to the line and generate some offense.”
Just when it felt like the Wildcats were beginning to pull away, UTEP battled back and kept the game tight. The Wildcats jumped out to a 49-39 lead after Bennedict Mathurin converted a three-point play with just over 14 minutes left in the game. The Miners continued to crawl back and cut Arizona’s lead to just 61-57 after a three-pointer from Souley Boum with 6:45 left to play.
The Wildcats then approached the final minute of the game with a nervous 65-61 lead before Akinjo continued his perfect free-throw performance, knocking down two and giving the Wildcats a 67-61 lead with 31 seconds left to ice the game.
“I feel like close games are where character is built,” Akinjo said. “You find out what people are made of, and I felt like tonight we didn’t make shots, but we responded really well. We’ll make shots, so us getting on the glass and rebounding the way we did, I feel like that really helped us win a lot.”
Akinjo finished the evening with 18 points and three assists despite shooting 2-11 from the field and 0-2 from three. Mathurin had another impressive game, showing his aggressiveness on the fast breaks and scoring 13 points and seven rebounds but showed his inexperience with his four turnovers.
“I think, right now, [Mathurin] has been really good,” sophomore Christian Koloko said of his fellow teammate. “He’s still a freshman, so I think he made a couple of mistakes tonight … but after the next few games, you’re going to see him playing good. Today, he had a lot of fancy rebounds, and he’s going to keep knocking threes and driving to the basket and getting fouled and making free-throws so I think, for a freshman, he’s been really good right now.”
The Arizona Wildcats are now 5-0 following the win over UTEP with its next game against California Baptist on Wednesday, Dec. 16, at 5 p.m. MST in McKale Center.
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