UC Irvine proved to be a true challenge for Arizona, as the Anteaters pushed the #2 ranked Wildcats throughout the 71-54 win. Despite looking listless for much of the game, a 15-0 run late in the second half regained the lead for Arizona and they never looked back.
The Wildcats were generally sloppy with the ball for the first 30 minutes of play, displaying an inconsistent effort level on both sides of the game. There were moments when Arizona ratcheted up the defensive ball pressure and denial, and looked like an entirely different team.
But the Wildcats couldn’t sustain that intensity and they allowed UC Irvine to lead 29-26 at half. Irvine would eventually extend the lead to 6 with just over 17 minutes left in the game, at which point the Anteaters looked composed while Arizona was searching for answers.
If it weren’t for the energy of Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and the awareness of TJ McConnell, Arizona could have easily suffered a loss.
But Hollis-Jefferson had his typical highlight reel dunk that takes the roof off the building, on 7-6 Mamdou Ndiaye no less, as well as a career high 19 points.
Hollis-Jefferson once again came off the bench, a role in which he has thrived so far this season. His aggressiveness and play-making ability off the dribble was a key factor in waking up the sluggish Arizona team. He attacked the basket and converted 11-13 free throws, while collecting 6 rebounds in 29 minutes.
And senior point guard McConnell showed poise as he kept Arizona in the game with a whopping 6 steals. McConnell also stepped up his offensive game, scoring 12 points to go along with 9 rebounds and 4 assists.
Brandon Ashley was the only other Wildcat to score in double figures, with 11 points. Ashley played 33 minutes, second only to McConnell’s 36.
Despite shooting under 40% from the field and committing more turnovers than assists, Arizona was able to kick into gear late in the game when UC Irvine’s perimeter shots ran cold and their star big man was sent to the bench with foul trouble.
Next up the Wildcats head to Lahaina, Hawaii for the Maui Invitational opening round against the Missouri Tigers.