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November 15, 2013

Gordon's late alley-oop lifts No. 6 Arizona past SDSU

SAN DIEGO -- After his collegiate debut, Aaron Gordon said the development of his 3-point shot for the next level was among the reasons he chose Arizona out of high school.

Six days later, in front of 22 NBA scouts and a raucous crowd of 12,414 - the 24th consecutive sellout crowd at Viejas Arena - the freshman rose to the occasion in his first road game Thursday night.

While he connected on both of his 3-pointers, it was Gordon's trademark athleticism that was the deciding factor, and the sixth-ranked Wildcats overcame immense foul trouble to pull out a 69-60 win over San Diego State.

Leading 62-58 with 1:21 remaining, Gordon converted a backbreaking layup on an in-bounds alley-oop from T.J. McConnell, and Nick Johnson iced the game with four free throws in the final 38 seconds.

"We just executed really well, that's all it comes down to," said Gordon, who scored 12 of his 16 points in the first half, grabbed eight rebounds and blocked two shots for the Wildcats (3-0). "Coach (Sean) Miller is a really good coach, he drew up a really good play, and in such a hostile environment we just learned to execute. The play worked out. I just used my athletic ability to finish it."

Added McConnell, who dished out six assists: "I've never seen something like that before. Maybe from Blake Griffin, or something like that. I don't see too many people finishing that shot besides him."

But the play almost did go to somebody else.

Initially, the design was to go to Johnson, who poured in 13 of his game-high 23 points after halftime. But the junior guard was covered by three Aztecs.

"I wanted the lob first," Johnson said, smiling.

SDSU (1-1), which trailed by 11 at the break, cut the deficit to single digits on three separate occasions - the last thanks to seven points from Xavier Thames during a 9-2 spurt from the 4:09 mark to Gordon's finish over Dakarai Allen.

The Aztecs shot 36 percent - and just 8 of 27 in the second half - but converted 14 of 19 free throws after halftime to key the late push.

"We just got stuck in a deep hole in the first half," said Thames, who made just 5 of 16 shots and finished with 19 points.

J.J. O'Brien matched Thames' total but connected on 6 of 12 shots. Josh Davis, who picked SDSU over UA after transferring from Tulane, was limited to two points and four rebounds on 1-of-7 shooting.

The Wildcats won in an environment that had helped the Aztecs win 40 of the previous 41 nonconference home games - including three consecutive over Associated Press Top 25 teams.

UA head coach Sean Miller pointed to his team's three second-half turnovers and a 39-28 edge on rebounds as the deciding statistics.

"To play a true road game is something we're proud of the fact that we did," Miller said. "We came in here not knowing how it would work out, but the fact we were able to play well enough to win is something that I think will continue to give us confidence and prepare us for future games.

"When you play against a team in an environment like this, you have to be able to stay in control, poised and we did that."

The Wildcats, who cooled off after a 53.8 percent shooting display in the opening half, needed every bit of Johnson's first nine points in the second half.

After a mostly free-flowing first 20 minutes, the whistles became a factor early for the visitors. Arizona received an early blow when Gordon, Johnson and Brandon Ashley were saddled with three fouls apiece by the 15:57 mark.

But Miller kept the 6-9, 225-pound Gordon on the floor and, on the next trip down, he picked up the assist on an alley-oop to Kaleb Tarczewski for the 45-31 advantage.

"Aaron Gordon is a good player," SDSU head coach Steve Fisher. "I knew that, you knew that - the whole world knew that. He doesn't play like a freshman."

Ashley was then assessed a fourth with 14:30 remaining, and SDSU cut the deficit below double digits on O'Brien's free throws eight seconds later. Then, Tarczewski and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson joined the three fouls club before the first seven minutes of the half were complete.

Regardless, Johnson drew a charge and converted back-to-back baskets to give UA the 50-38 lead. Gordon, who had a big first half, then got back in the flow with a layup and assist to Tarczewski for a dunk to extend the advantage to 14 with less than nine minutes left.

Johnson, a junior, said he made it a point to take charge when things looked dicey.

"I wanted to be aggressive coming into this game," Johnson said. "Myself, Kaleb and Brandon are the only ones who have been in this type of environment or a big-time away game. We just wanted to stay on it and i definitely wanted to be a little bit more aggressive."

The Aztecs pulled back within six on Thames second 3-pointer in a span of 2:08 and an O'Brien free throw, and Gordon picked up a fourth foul with 3:32 to play. Thames' layup with less than two minutes left brought SDSU within four points and setup the finish.

"With Aaron's talent, we knew that he'll go up and get it and he did," Miller said.

Leading 12-9, Arizona went on a 12-2 run highlighted by a Gordon 3-pointer. The forward made his first five shots - including a pair of 3s - and had three steals before the midway point of the opening half. Two fouls sent him to the bench, but not before scoring 12 first-half points to lead the way.

"That's what I was trying to come out and do," Gordon, who finished 7 of 12 from the field, said of his quick start. "It's something that I'm capable of doing and I continued to show that I can shoot."

SDSU connected on just four of its first 14 shots before back-to-back Winston Shepard layups and a free throws got the crowd back in the game and cut the deficit to 24-16 with 6:25 left in the half.

That settled down the Aztecs, who made four consecutive baskets and a pair of Matt Shrigley free throws to cut the deficit to six.

A big difference at the end of the half was UA's execution in the halfcourt. The Wildcats answered with an 11-3 run to push the lead back to 14 - the largest of the half. Johnson and McConnell knocked down a pair of mid-range jumpers and Johnson found an open Gabe York on a cut to the basket.

Shrigley's 3-pointer with six seconds remaining cut the Arizona halftime lead to 39-28.

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Tracy McDannaldTracy McDannald
GOAZCATS.com Senior Editor

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