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December 4, 2012

No. 8 Arizona grinds out 6th straight win

It took six games, but eighth-ranked Arizona finally found itself in a struggle Tuesday night after obliterating opponents to start the season.

The Wildcats overcame a sloppy, out-of-sync first half, and Nick Johnson scored a career-high 23 points in a 63-55 victory over Southern Miss at McKale Center.

Tied at 51, Kevin Parrom and Solomon Hill delivered a pair of 3-pointers inside the final 5 minutes, and the 'Cats (6-0) limited the Golden Eagles (6-2) to just 36 percent shooting in the second half to pull away.

It is the program's first 6-0 start since the 1999-2000 season.

"I'm happy to have had a close game," said Johnson, who converted 9 of 14 shots to continue a torrid start to his sophomore campaign. "I know we have veteran leadership, but our freshmen haven't been in close games."

Johnson also contributed four assists but six turnovers.

Guard Neil Watson paced the Golden Eagles with 17 points.

Arizona - which overcame a dismal 27 turnovers - closed the game on a 12-4 run and converted 12 of 22 shots in the second half. The turnover total was the most since Arizona coughed up the ball 30 times in a game against Washington State on Jan. 7, 1999.

"If you turn over the ball 27 times, it's almost impossible to win," Wildcats fourth-year head coach Sean Miller said. "The fact that we did that at home is not good. It wasn't just one player, but it was an entire team.

"To have those turnovers and to win is a completely different story."

But UA forced Southern Miss into 23 turnovers - including 17 in the second half.

The Wildcats also won despite an off night from point guard Mark Lyons, who missed all seven of his shot attempts and finished with just four points.

After a flat first half in which they lost the battle of points in the paint, 12-4, the much bigger Wildcats did not take long to finally wake up.

Miller elected to start Parrom in the second half to combat the Southern Miss zone defense. It worked as the senior contributed 13 of his 14 points after the break and added eight rebounds.

"This game proved how tough we are," said Parrom, who missed all three of his field goal attempts in the first 20 minutes but finished 5-of-9 from the floor.

UA scored six straight points sparked by a Johnson dunk, and an ensuing five-second call against Southern Miss fired up an antsy crowd waiting for a reason to erupt. An easy feed to Kaleb Tarczewski for an uncontested dunk followed by an offensive rebound and putback by the 7-footer on the next trip cut Arizona's deficit to 37-35 with 18:03 to play.

In the midst of a 14-2 run, a Jordin Mayes steal and Johnson's transition layup with 13:07 remaining put the Wildcats ahead 45-44 - the first lead since the 8:33 mark of the first half.

But a Michael Craig basket for the Golden Eagles tied the game at 49 with 8:14 left to set the stage for the tight finish.

The Wildcats made a concerted effort to answer Miller's plea and play through the post. Instead, what unfolded was a game of hot potato around the perimeter as UA struggled to establish a presence in the paint.

The 'Cats missed five of their first six shots and the one entry pass into the frontcourt was intercepted. Also, Tarczewski committed a pair of offensive fouls within the first 5 minutes while trying to establish position.

After a quick breather, the 255-pound center returned and UA finally found a semblance of success. Trailing 10-4, the Wildcats went to Tarczewski, who made a quick catch and pass out of an immediate double team to Hill for the 3-pointer.

But that was about the only sense of rhythm the Wildcats had on offense.

But Miller blamed himself for the lack of "movement and flow."

"Sometimes you struggle offensively and try to fight to get out of it," Miller said. "We had those moments. Those are moments we hope to learn and grow from them and still win.

"To me, that is the most gratifying thing about tonight."

Southern Miss feasted off Arizona's 13 first-half turnovers, converting them into 18 points. Despite connecting on just 41.2 percent from the field before the break, the Golden Eagles led by as many as 11 thanks in part to 14 more shot attempts.

The Wildcats converted just 7 of 20 shots - 4 of 13 from beyond the arc - but Johnson accounted for nearly half of the team's first-half points. Johnson and Watson traded 3-pointers inside the final 15 seconds, as Southern Miss took a 35-27 lead into the locker room.

Tracy McDannaldTracy McDannald
GOAZCATS.com Senior Editor

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