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December 11, 2013

Arizona makes history with back-to-back 10-0 starts

Arizona may still be trying to get more from what has ultimately amounted to a six-man rotation of late, but Rondae Hollis-Jefferson carried the reserve load quite well Wednesday night.

The all-energy freshman provided a spark off the bench as one of four double-figure scorers and the top-ranked Wildcats accomplished something not even the great Lute Olson teams ever did in a 74-48 win over New Mexico State at McKale Center.

UA, which opened last season with 14 consecutive wins, has back-to-back 10-0 starts to a season for the first time in program history.

The 48 points also were the fewest allowed by the Wildcats this season.

Fifth-year head coach Sean Miller said the team is "proud" of the accomplishment, which he attributed to the focus of this year's team in wins that include at San Diego State and against Duke on a neutral court. Both teams are currently ranked in the Top 25 and the 'Cats will travel to Michigan, ranked 25th in the coaches' poll, this Saturday.

"We have to do it again," Miller said. "Now we have to get ready for a huge game on the road at Michigan. I think it's the preparation. They're trying their best to get ready for each and every opportunity."

Brandon Ashley led the way with 15 points and six rebounds and Kaleb Tarczewski made all five of his shots to finish with 14. Hollis-Jefferson chipped in 12 points and eight boards for the Wildcats, who shot 17 of 29 in the second half and dominated the rebounding battle, 38-22.

"He definitely just brings that new energy to the team," Ashley said of Hollis-Jefferson, who added three assists, two blocks and a steal in his 23 minutes.

Up by 8 at the half, UA took its first double-digit lead of the contest after a T.J. McConnell 3 and additional jump shot with 17:16 to play. An Ashley 3-pointer - his third of the night - and a Tarczewski dunk bumped the advantage to 15 three minutes later and the Wildcats remained in control the rest of the way.

Ashley, who improved his long-range shot over the summer and has been dialed in as of late, finished 3 of 3 from beyond the arc. He was 3 of 3 from distance all of last season.

"It's just the fact that I feel a lot more comfortable out there," said Ashley, who has now made seven of his last eight after starting the season 0 of 4. "Last season I felt like I could shoot, I just didn't necessarily feel comfortable shooting that shot."

NMSU (7-5) pulled within 11 on three different occasions, the last with 10:50 remaining after a pair of Daniel Mullings free throws, but would get no closer.

Mullings scored a game-high 18 points for the Aggies, who shot just 5 of 21 after halftime and finished at 32.6 percent.

"Typically we come out of the half very efficient but that didn't happen here," Aggies head coach Marvin Menzies said. "Their athleticism and size was a problem for us, on the wings especially."

The Wildcats, who had trouble finishing around the rim in the second half of last Saturday's win over UNLV, had the same issue early against the size of the 7-5 Sim Bhullar and the long NMSU frontcourt.

"That's like T.J. guarding me," the 6-8 Ashley joked about the challenge, drawing a deadpan stare from the 6-1 guard sitting to his left in the postgame press conference.

But despite converting just four of its first 12 shots, UA went on an 13-1 run capped by an uncontested Tarczewski dunk, a straightaway Ashley 3-pointer and Nick Johnson layup off a long outlet pass. That turned a 10-5 deficit into an 18-11 lead with 9:29 left in the half.

The Aggies pulled within 21-20, but Hollis-Jefferson helped restore the advantage and sparked an 8-0 spurt. After the freshman's mid-range jump shot, he gave UA an extra possession with his trademark hustle with pressure in the backcourt, which was rewarded with a McConnell basket on the ensuing play.

"Rondae Jefferson was outstanding," Miller said. "He made big plays. He did it in all facets of the game. Offensive and defensive rebounding, great assists - part of why Kaleb was 5 for 5 is three of those plays, I think, came right off of Rondae's passing.

"He did everything and it was great to see."

Aaron Gordon's up-and-under reverse layup and a pair of Tarczewski free throws then gave the Wildcats their largest lead of the half, 29-20, at the 3:13 mark.

Before the half was done, the 6-7 Hollis-Jefferson put the crowd in a frenzy with a highlight-reel dunk over 6-9 Renaldo Dixon and completed the traditional three-point play. The Wildcats led 32-24 at the break.

"My coach was like, 'Attack!' So that's what I did," Hollis-Jefferson said of the message coming out of a timeout prior to the dunk.

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Tracy McDannaldTracy McDannald
GOAZCATS.com Senior Editor

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