Top-ranked Wildcats roll over NAU
TUCSON, Ariz. — Arizona knocked off some quality opponents, rolled over a few overmatched ones and grinded out victories even when things didn’t go so well.
The Wildcats weren’t perfect during their non-conference season, but their record was and that’s all that matters to them.
Nick Johnson scored 20 points, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson added 14 and top-ranked Arizona rolled over Northern Arizona 77-44 on Monday night to complete its second straight undefeated non-conference slate.
"We’re good, but we can get a lot better," Johnson said. "Hey, 13-0, we’ll take that. Now we’ve just got to get ready for conference."
The Wildcats appear to be in good shape after their latest rout against an overmatched opponent.
Arizona (13-0) played its second straight game without injured center Kaleb Tarczewski, but didn’t really need him, grabbing control with a 27-4 first-half run.
Johnson got the run started and Hollis-Jefferson provided a spark starting in place of Tarczewski, grabbing eight rebounds while hustling all over the floor.
Brandon Ashley added 11 points and nine rebounds, Gabe York had 10 points and four steals, and T.J. McConnell had six assists in Arizona’s 27th straight non-conference win.
One of the nation’s best defensive teams all season, the Wildcats did their most damage on that end, holding Northern Arizona (3-8) to 36 percent shooting while scoring 18 points off 23 turnovers.
An overwhelming No. 1 the past two weeks, Arizona should stay atop the polls at least one more week with its next game not until Jan. 2 against Washington State.
"Being the No. 1 team in the country, you can carry it as a burden and take all of the negative connotations that you want," Arizona coach Sean Miller said. "On the flip side, we’ve really embraced the fact that we’re the No. 1 team in the country. You can’t take it from us. We earned it."
Northern Arizona is plenty familiar with trip south, playing in Tucson every season but one since 2002.
It hasn’t gone too well for the Lumberjacks. Other than a five-point game in 2010, Arizona has beaten Northern Arizona in routs, including a 93-50 runaway last season.
The Lumberjacks faced an even bigger hill this time around.
Northern Arizona had a huge setback just before the season started, when sophomore guard Dwayne Russell, the team’s top returning scorer, decided to transfer.
The Lumberjacks managed to play close games against Southern California and Fresno State, but those teams are nothing like what they were up against at the McKale Center.
Arizona had rolled through its non-conference schedule to this point, knocking off teams like Duke and Michigan to move atop The Associated Press poll two weeks ago.
Northern Arizona held its own while Arizona struggled on offense early on, playing to an 11-all tie with the Wildcats in the opening 8 minutes.
Arizona turned into a rout after that, scoring 17 straight points during its big run to go up 38-15.
Johnson keyed it, hitting consecutive 3-pointers at the start and adding another to put the Wildcats up 15. The junior guard had 14 points by halftime to help Arizona to a 41-17 lead.
Northern Arizona had two field goals over the final 10 minutes and shot 7 of 19 from the floor. Worse for the Lumberjacks, they had no assists in the half and 12 turnovers that led to 18 points for Arizona.
"We had too many turnovers and that’s what killed us," Northern Arizona forward Gaellan Bewernick said. "Valuing the ball is the biggest thing for us right now."
Taking it away is the top priority for the Wildcats and they’ve proven to be pretty good at it.
Arizona is long, athletic, versatile and, usually has a 7-foot anchor in Tarczewski.
The Wildcats entered Monday’s game seventh nationally in scoring defense, allowing 57.8 points per game, and eighth in shooting percentage against at 37.3
Even without Tarczewski to contend with, the Lumberjacks were no match for Arizona.
Let by Johnson and McConnell out top, the Wildcats hounded Northern Arizona into turnovers, difficult shots and made it tough for the Lumberjacks to even run their offense.
Arizona keyed its big first-half run with defense and didn’t really let up until the game was well out of hand in the second half.
Northern Arizona had four assists and failed to get a player in double-figures scoring to become the third opponent in four games to be held under 50 points by Arizona.
"Best defensive team I’ve seen in a long time," said NAU coach Jack Murphy, a former manager under Lute Olson at Arizona. "Defensively, they’re better than any team when I was here. Their length, they guard pick and rolls, motion and they limit you to one shot. They defend."
And win, at least to this point.