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Column: T.J. McConnell wins battle of top-flight point guards

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Rebecca Noble

Arizona forward Brandon Ashely (21) and Arizona guard TJ McConnell (4) defend Gonzaga guard Kevin Pangos (4) during Arizona’s 66-63 win against Gonzaga at McKale Center on Saturday, Dec. 6.

After hitting a midrange jumper to give Arizona a 64-60 lead with a few minutes left in a thrilling back and forth contest with No. 9 Gonzaga, Arizona point guard T.J McConnell did what he does so often, make a big play at McKale Center. With a face of pure passion and arms waving into the air to implore the Wildcat faithful to stand on their feet for the final push against the Bulldogs, the senior standout was took over a game that was Arizona’s toughest test all season.

For McConnell, there was plenty of reason to be excited as not only were the Wildcats finally in the lead despite trailing for the entire second half, but he was also personally winning a matchup with the Bulldogs’ own star point guard Kevin Pangos.

“It’s pretty much just a mindset,” McConnell said. “Kevin Pangos, I hear, is the best point guard in the country and he’s playing like it, so it was kind of a mindset taking it personally and saying ‘what about Arizona, what about us?’. We took it to the next level and it started with our guards guarding Pangos.”

Entering Saturday’s matchup with the Wildcats, Pangos was averaging 12.3 points a game but with McConnell and a variety of other Wildcats including, most importantly, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson guarding him, the Ontario native struggled all day, scoring only eight points on 3-10 shooting and turning the ball over in critical moments late in the second half and overtime.

“First of all, Rondae is one of the nation’s great defenders,” Miller said. “He didn’t guard Kevin Pangos the entire game, McConnell did, Gabe York did, Elliott Pitts did. We switched a lot of ball screens, so our big guys did a good job when they switched onto him. But in the lion’s share of the biggest moments of the game, Rondae was on Kevin Pangos and did a really good job of just making the game hard. So that if he makes a shot, and he made a big one, that it’s going to be a contested tough shot.”

With Stanley Johnson and Hollis-Jefferson struggling on the offensive side, McConnell needed to step up his scoring and he did just that. McConnell was second on Arizona in scoring against the Bulldogs with 12 points on a day when the usually pass first point guard was limited to only three assists.

What may have been the most important aspect of McConnell’s day against Gonzaga was his willingness to take the big shots. With the Wildcats forcing overtime with a late surge in the second half, it was McConnell who made Arizona’s first two field goals in overtime, as he knocked down two running jumpers with no hesitation.

McConnell scored all six of the Wildcats’ overtime points as he also hit two free throws, but it was the other two free throws in overtime that McConnell missed and would have iced the game with, that will be gnawing at the typically clutch foul shooter.

“I got to put this away,” McConnell said on his mindset when stepping up to the foul line late in the game. “Obviously I didn’t, but I’m going to get in the gym tomorrow and work on my free throws and when I’m in that situation again, I’m going to try and do it better.”

That is what makes McConnell the leader of a team that is full of superstars. Not the fact that he came ahead in a battle with one of the nation’s best point guards, but instead his drive to get better as the season progresses.

This is T.J. McConnell’s team and when the moment calls for someone to step up, the Wildcats can count on him.

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