Ashley leads Arizona to blowout win over Mount St. Mary’s

Arizona forward Stanley Johnson (5) drives to the basket as he is defended by Mount St. Mary's forward Will Miller (11) during the second half Friday at McKale Center. Arizona won 78-55.

Casey Sapio

TUCSON, Ariz. — Welcome to the new McKale Center, the new Arizona Wildcats and, well, the new Brandon Ashley.

All new and improved — which is saying something given the progam’s 30-year tradition of success. Or so it appeared in Arizona’s 78-55 win over visiting Mount St. Mary’s on Friday night in the season opener that saw Ashley return from a broken foot and McKale Center gussied up with a $30 million renovation.

It was clearly Ashley’s night as he returned for his first official game since breaking his foot on Feb. 1, when Arizona was No. 1 in the country and 21-0. He played like he had never been away, making 9 of 10 shots, scoring a career-high 21 points and pulling down six rebounds.

"Honestly, I didn’t think about how I played," Ashley said. "It was more so about that I was able to get on the court."

He thanked everyone from his teammates to his doctors to getting him back and playing.  But his overall performance —  dunking, diving and hitting jumpers — was "confirmation" he’s able to compete on this level.

Arizona coach Sean Miller said it may have been Ashley’s best game in an Arizona uniform.

"He’s played a lot of basketball at Arizona," Miller said. "A year ago, he was hitting his stretch (of solid play) when he got injured. It’s good for him to get off to a good start."

Miller said he’ll be rested a bit on Saturday before UA faces Cal State Northridge on Sunday.

Arizona 78, Mount St. Mary's 55

"We trust Brandon enough that from the big-picture perspective where he can do a little bit, but keeping him healthy from start to finish is all of our responsibility," Miller said. "He’s not at any more risk to be injured than anyone on our team."

Sophomore forward Rondae Hollis Jefferson didn’t start because he had a slightly injured shoulder, Miller said. Freshman Stanley Johnson got the start instead, but Hollis-Jefferson came off the bench to finish with 15 points, three steals and four rebounds. Kaleb Tarczewski added 10 points and 10 rebounds, and Johnson scored eight.

"I hope Arizona fans really understand what a great coach they have here and really appreciate what a great team they have here," Mount St. Mary’s coach Jamion Christian said. "They play unselfishly, and they play together."

Miller said it’s not important who starts but who plays well, and when they do they will be rewarded. On Friday night, he went deep into his lineup, playing nine players early and eventually finishing with 12.

How Arizona closed out the first half and played in stretches in the second half looked like a No. 2 team.

The Wildcats showed a suffocating defense much like they did a year ago, turning stretches of the game into highlight reels. They closed out the first half with a jaw-dropping three-steal, three-dunk performance, turning what was a 28-25 lead into a 40-25 halftime lead.

It came on an Ashley dunk after he had a steal and a pair of Rondae Hollis-Jefferson dunks that were as thunderous as any he had last season.

"Rondae was terrific in that segment," said Miller.

Arizona scored 27 points off 16 turnovers, most coming on the dunks off of 11 steals.

"Our defense is our calling card," Miller said. "We’re going to get more in transition where we will have more dunks and more threes and things that you love when we are great on defense. There were times when we were, and there were times when we weren’t."

Miller made it a point to say his team has plent of room to improve.

 Like last season, the Wildcats struggled from the foul line, hitting just 12 of 25 shots.

"We’re not going to win the games we want to win shooting that percentage," Miller said. "Everybody to a man has to shoot the ball better from the foul line."

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