After controlling the run of play for much of the night, No. 6 Arizona found itself in need of a big play with San Diego State mounting a charge at Viejas Arena. With “The Show” roaring and the Aztecs within four points thanks to a Xavier Thames layup, the Wildcats were confronted with a baseline out of bounds situation late in the shot clock with 1:22 remaining.
The solution: head coach Sean Miller drawing up a play that freed up freshman forward Aaron Gordon for an impressive alley-oop. Gordon missed the ensuing free throw but the play itself allowed Arizona to regain control of the proceedings, and they’d go on to win by a final score of 69-60. Gordon, who made his first five shots, was all over the box score with 16 points, eight rebounds, three steals and two blocked shots but he was just one of the key figures in the victory.
Nick Johnson scored a game-high 23 points and shot 7-for-9 from inside of the arc, knocking down shots at key junctures in the game when it seemed as if SDSU was one stop away from making things even tighter. Freshman Rondae Hollis-Jefferson gave the Wildcats some valuable minutes off the bench, and point guard T.J. McConnell handled his responsibilities with the maturity many expected when the Duquesne transfer was “handed the keys” to the attack.
But outside of Gordon and Johnson’s offensive output, what Arizona was able to do defensively against an athletic San Diego State squad may be the biggest thing to take out of the result. There’s no doubting the fact that the Aztecs have significant questions to answer offensively; the losses of both Jamaal Franklin and Chase Tapley are huge in that both players had the ability to get Steve Fisher’s team a basket when they needed one.
With those two gone SDSU had to rely on its athleticism to put points on the board, and Arizona made things difficult for much of the night. San Diego State shot just 36% from the field, and players other than Thames (19 points), J.J. O’Brien (19) and Winston Shepard III (12) accounted for ten points on 3-for-12 shooting. And in the paint Tulane transfer Josh Davis, who averaged a double-double last season and should be an impact player for San Diego State, struggled against the Arizona big men (Brandon Ashley and Kaleb Tarczewski).
San Diego State will certainly get better as the season wears on, and given UNLV’s struggles (yes, it’s early) the Aztecs and Boise State look to be New Mexico’s biggest threats in the Mountain West. Arizona’s going to get better as well, and the experience of winning in a hostile environment will benefit them down the line.