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December 3, 2013

No. 2 Arizona remains unbeaten behind balanced attack

Arizona continued to make life against the Top 25 tough on Texas Tech.

The No. 2-ranked Wildcats remained unbeaten with a 79-58 win over the Red Raiders Tuesday night at McKale Center.

UA (8-0), led by Aaron Gordon's career-high 19 points, extended Texas Tech's losing streak to 31 games against ranked opponents. Brandon Ashley added a double-double with 18 points and 10 rebounds while Nick Johnson chipped in 18 for the Wildcats, who shot 50 percent and dominated the boards, 43-23.

Coming off a trip to New York City - including a big win over then-No. 6 Duke to win the NIT Season Tip-Off - and a two-stop flight back to Tucson that did not arrive until the wee hours of Saturday morning, UA head coach Sean Miller said he was worried coming into the contest, but did not use it as an excuse for a "sloppy" first half marred by 11 turnovers and "bad decisions."

The Wildcats turned it over just four times in the second half, however.

"I don't grade it differently," Miller said of his team's performance in spite of the circumstances. "We had plenty of time to get back on our feet. But I'm just telling you, when you were in what were in for five or six days there and the travel both to and from, the high of beating Duke and winning the tournament, you could see where we could come out flat or a letdown or not be on the same page. But tonight wasn't the case."

Point guard T.J. McConnell turned in another quality all-around performance without having to score much. The junior finished with five points, five rebounds, a season-high 10 assists and three steals.

"When you play with guys this talented, it makes the point guard look good," McConnell said.

Added Johnson: "And we've got to make more shots. He should've had 13 (assists)."

But free throws continued to be an issue as the Wildcats made just 19 of 33 attempts.

The Red Raiders (6-3) were paced by Jaye Crockett and Kader Tapsoba's 11 points apiece, but the team shot just 39.6 percent against the nation's seventh-best defense in the category and just 1 of 11 on 3-pointers.

"They are very talented, the best team we have played so far," TTU head coach Tubby Smith said. "I thought Pittsburgh was pretty good but this is a tough place to play."

Leading by 10 after a mostly uneventful first 20 minutes, the Wildcats opened the second half similar to how it quickly started the contest. UA went on a 9-2 run inside the first three minutes, capped by a Gordon dunk, McConnell steal and Johnson 3-pointer - his fourth of the night.

Arizona finished 10 of 22 from beyond the arc.

"Nick can really shoot the 3," Miller said. "He's an improved 3-point shooter. I think he's going to be very consistent this year."

The life that was missing for much of the first half - outside of the halftime exhibition game that ended with a middle-schooler dunking to bring the crowd to its feet - was absent no more thanks to Gordon.

The 6-9 forward's crossover dribble and bucket pushed the lead to 20 with 10:31 remaining and his one-hand throwdown electrified the crowd and made it 62-45 with less than eight minutes left.

TTU never threatened again.

With a target on its back, trailing only top-ranked Michigan State in the polls, Miller said "it's a healthy thing to talk about" and the topic has been discussed with his players.

"Sometimes in your sporting life, an opportunity knocks that doesn't come around very often - if ever," Miller said. "To have a chance to be ranked as the No. 1 team in the nation is something that I think all of us would feel really good about for obvious reasons."

Gordon and Ashley combined for the game's first 10 points and Texas Tech missed its first five shots in the opening 3:50 of the contest.

The Wildcats allowed the Red Raiders to settle in, thanks in part to six of their 11 first-half turnovers by the midway point. But TTU trimmed just two points off the deficit in that span.

Trailing by 13, an 8-0 run then cut the Red Raiders' deficit to 23-18 at the 5:18 mark.

Over the final 4:15, Johnson connected on three 3-pointers to help the Wildcats take a 35-25 lead into the locker room.

"My teammates found me in the right position. I hit the shot," Johnson said.

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Tracy McDannaldTracy McDannald
GOAZCATS.com Senior Editor

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