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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

Arizona Wildcats make NIT opener a long night for the Knights

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Tyler Baker
Tyler Baker / The Daily Wildcat Rondae Hollis-Jefferson guards against Fairleigh Dickinson on Monday at the McKale Center.

It didn’t take long for No. 5 Arizona to build national hype, and while the Wildcats’ NIT Season Tip-Off matchup 100-50 win over Fairleigh Dickinson was never really in doubt, reaching the finals in New York City is never a sure thing.

With early season player role identities being formed, head coach Sean Miller seems more at ease.
“Our feet are well-grounded,” Miller said. “Sometimes people think if you’re in the preseason NIT tournament, you get to play in Madison Square Garden. We don’t get anything else unless we win tomorrow.”

The win was Miller’s 100th at the UA (4-0).

Winning will be a little easier for Miller now that junior guard Nick Johnson has begun to turn into the team’s strongest offensive and defensive threat.

Johnson finished Monday’s game with 16 points on 5-for-7 shooting versus the Knights (1-3) and on defense shut down some of FDU’s top scorers.

The Knights’ Sidney Sanders Jr. opened Monday’s game by making five of his team’s first seven baskets. His 10 early points kept FDU close; however, once guarded by the 6-foot-3 Johnson, his production was limited.

Sanders Jr. finished the game with 16 points in 28 minutes played. Along with cuffing the Knights’ only offensive player, Johnson had three blocks by the game’s end.

After Sanders Jr. was quieted, midway through the first half, Wildcats ran away, pushing a 16-13 lead into a 30-15 one in less than six minutes.

Surprisingly, freshman Aaron Gordon, despite finishing with his third double-double this season, was fairly quiet compared to his usually loud games that include high shooting percentages and fast break dunks.

Gordon, who made his fourth start at the small forward position for the Wildcats, has begun the season as one of the most promising young college basketball players in the country. But Monday, the 18 year old ran into his first sign of adversity, missing his first five shots.

Early in Monday’s battle with the well-overmatched Knights, Gordon appeared to be forcing shots and working too hard to find his shot, but he stayed focused and found ways to be productive with 10 rebounds to go along with his 3-for-11 shooting.

“He just finds ways to rebound the ball,” Miller said. “He just has a gift.”

His struggles were compensated for by the Wildcats’ ability to play a multitude of players at different positions, which is also developing as one the team’s strongest characteristics.

Fellow freshman Rondae Hollis-Jefferson was that fill-in. Hollis-Jefferson has yet to start, but is quickly proving to be one of the most valuable pieces of Miller’s team.

“My teammates, they make [me] feel so comfortable that I just like to play basketball and have fun,” Hollis-Jefferson said. “It’s much easier when you’re having fun out there.”

For the second consecutive game, Hollis-Jefferson had an impressive performance coming off the bench. His 13 points and seven rebounds, four of which were offensive, easily made up for Gordon’s slow start.

The dagger Monday night, though, was Gabe York. A majority of his 20 points came in the second half, and once again his sniping ability from beyond the arc was the killer.

York was 4-for-6 for threes in 19 minutes off the bench, but showed great body control when driving to the basket.

Its his improvement on defense that has given him this early playing time and will keep him on the court.

“I think my defense surprised the coaches,” York said. “Offense came easy to me, but defense is what I’m concerned about.”

Arizona played 15 Wildcats on Monday night and six scored double-figure points — York’s 20 marked a game as well as career high for the sophomore.

It’s only fitting that Miller won his 100th game on a night the Wildcats scored 100 points. But the fifth-year coach said he isn’t worried about the points; he just wants to make sure his team continues to play hard on defense and limit turnovers on offense.

“To play a game with only five turnovers is outstanding,” Miller said. “We made great decisions. That’s a great sign early.”

—Follow Luke Della @LukeDella

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