While most of the country’s teams were playing games over the Thanksgiving break, some of them in exotic places, Arizona’s players were stuck in a practice gym.
For eight days the ninth-ranked Wildcats went against each other, to the point that it almost felt like they were in preseason camp.
The work seemed to do them some good.
Showing no signs of rust from the extended break, Arizona dominated Northern Arizona defensively in the second half and shot well all night in a 93-50 rout of the Lumberjacks on Wednesday.
”Whether we played well tonight or not, I would have said the same thing: Our team really tried to work hard during this break,” Arizona coach Sean Miller said. ”It’s not an easy time to not play a game because there’s so many holiday tournaments it almost feels like your season’s not going while theirs is.”
Arizona (4-0) rolled through its first three games, but hadn’t played since beating Long Beach State on Nov. 19.
The Wildcats overwhelmed the Lumberjacks from the get-go, dropping in 3-pointers and soaring in for dunks while building an 18-point lead in the first half.
After a few defensive breakdowns in the first half, the Wildcats shut down Northern Arizona (2-4) in the second, holding them to 9-of-29 shooting.
When they were through, the Wildcats had their fourth straight lopsided victory, a nice way to kick off a stretch of four games in 11 days that continues with their first road game, against Texas Tech on Saturday.
Mark Lyons led Arizona with 18 points, Solomon Hill added 17 and Nick Johnson had a superb all-around game, with 10 points, seven assists and four steals.
”We were ready to come out and play,” Johnson said.
The Lumberjacks never really stood much of a chance in coach Jack Murphy’s return to the McKale Center.
The new NAU coach spent eight years under longtime Arizona coach Lute Olson and enjoyed some time catching up with people around his old stomping grounds before and after the game.
While the game was being played, Murphy could only watch as the bigger, faster Wildcats shot 58 percent, made 12 of 21 from 3-point range and had 22 assists on 30 field goals on their way to a 29th straight win over the Lumberjacks.
Dewayne Russell had 13 points and Blake Hamilton 11 for Northern Arizona, winless in 24 all-time games against ranked opponents.
”It’s like going to a service academy: It’s great before and great after, but during it was awful,” Murphy said outside the Lumberjacks’ locker room, where Olson leaned against a wall waiting to speak to him.
During his time under Olson, Murphy worked his way up from student manager to director of operations. He later spent time as an advance scout for the NBA’s Denver Nuggets under George Karl and was an assistant to Josh Pastner at Memphis, so he had worked for some of the best minds in basketball.
Murphy will need that knowledge to turn around Northern Arizona, a program that lost its coach last season and its final 16 games to finish 5-24.
The Lumberjacks did manage to pull off a big upset during their forgetful 2011-12 season, knocking off Arizona State 69-68 in Tempe when Stallon Saldivar hit a 3-pointer with less than a second left.
The Wildcats gave them no shot of a repeat, spoiling Murphy’s return shortly after the opening tip.
Arizona scored the game’s first nine points and had a 16-point lead midway through the first half.
Johnson was the catalyst early, forcing a turnover to set up a breakaway dunk and sailing in for a dunk on an alley-oop pass from Jordin Mayes to score seven quick points. He also gave NAU trouble by repeatedly getting into the lane, setting up Grant Jerrett for a dunk with an in-traffic bounce pass for one of his four first-half assists.
The Wildcats had 10 assists on their 15 first-half field goals — in 27 shots — and led 39-26 after NAU’s Russell hit a 3-pointer at the buzzer.
”Whoever their shooting coach is, I need to pick their brain,” Murphy said. ”They hit a lot of shots.”
Arizona kept knocking them down, building the lead to 53-28 in the first 4 minutes after Lyons hit two 3-pointers.
The Wildcats’ defense, led by Lyons and Johnson up top, never gave Northern Arizona a chance to even think about a comeback.
Just like the opening possession of the game, Arizona forced the Lumberjacks to turn it over to start the second half and forced them to miss 16 of their first 20 shots.
Arizona’s backcourt helped force NAU’s top four guards into 10 of the team’s 15 turnovers. The Wildcats’ long-and-deep frontcourt made it tough to even get shots off, helping to hold Northern Arizona to 36 percent shooting on the night.
”Our second half was really good,” Miller said. ”Our effort level was good across the board. We helped, recovered and did the things we need to do defensively.”
Maybe the Wildcats should take big breaks like this more often.