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December 24, 2013

Johnson, top-ranked Wildcats stay perfect

Arizona made sure there would be no letdown early and finished the nonconference portion of its season strong Monday night.

Sparked by its defense, the top-ranked team in the country used a big surge midway through the first half and remained undefeated in a 77-44 win over Northern Arizona in front of a sellout crowd of 14,545 at McKale Center.

The Wildcats (13-0) have now held three of their last four opponents below 50 points.

Junior guard Nick Johnson scored 14 of his game-high 20 points in the first 20 minutes for UA, which shot 48.1 percent and forced 18 turnovers.

"I think we're good but we can get a lot better," said Johnson, who made 7 of 10 shots - including three 3-pointers.

"Right now, I think we're a top-10 defensive team and that was our goal coming into this year. But I think as a team we know that we can be a lot better than that. We can be the No. 1 defensive team in the country if everybody focuses on being that."

Six different players collected at least one steal, led by Gabe York's four off the bench.

York added 10 points on 4-of-7 shooting and four assists.

"[York] might have played the best other than Nick Johnson tonight," UA head coach Sean Miller said. "I thought when he was in, a lot of great things happened. So I feel really good about Gabe moving forward."

Trailing by 24 at the half, the Lumberjacks (3-8) scored seven of the first nine second-half points but never cut the deficit below 19 and trailed by as many as 34. No player scored in double figures for NAU, which was harassed into a 36.4 percent night from the field.

The Lumberjacks, who were paced by Aaseem Dixon's nine points, went 6:43 without a field goal midway through the second half as the Wildcats cruised.

"We had too many turnovers and that is what killed us," said NAU forward Gaellan Bewernick, who accounted for four of the miscues.

Regardless, Miller said the second-half defense was not "good enough."

"Not by the standards that we judge ourselves by," he added.

"Sometimes the offense is going to score on us because they're really good. But it can't be because of us."

For a second consecutive game, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson earned the start in a smaller lineup in place of injured center Kaleb Tarczewski (sprained right ankle). But the 7-footer took part in pregame warm-ups about 30 minutes prior to tipoff, unlike last Thursday.

Tarczewski, who rolled the ankle Dec. 14 at Michigan, appeared to dunk without issue in the layup lines before putting his sweats back on just before player introductions. He is expected to return Jan. 2, when Arizona opens Pac-12 Conference play against Washington State.

Hollis-Jefferson finished with a career-high 14 points, eight rebounds and a pair of assists.

"Rondae has been almost like a sixth starter," Miller said. "He gives us so many things - energy, he rebounds at both ends, he's becoming better on defense and he's an unappreciated passer."

The Lumberjacks put up a fight early, connecting on four of their first eight shots to tie the game at 11 with under 12 minutes to play in the half. But they would make just three of their next 11 attempts to close the half as the Wildcats' defense took over.

Johnson put UA back on top with a pair of 3-pointers, igniting a 10-2 run to take an eight-point lead with 9:46 remaining. After a brief lull and an NAU basket, the Wildcats continued to create separation with 17 consecutive points capped by back-to-back York layups.

"I just feel like as long as I'm playing hard, things are going to start going my way," York said.

The Lumberjacks converted just one field goal in the final 6:42 and trailed 41-17 at the break. As has been the case all season, UA's defense was the difference.

In the first half, the Wildcats forced 12 turnovers and owned an 18-0 edge in points off turnovers. They finished with a 23-2 advantage while turning the ball over just five times.

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Tracy McDannaldTracy McDannald
GOAZCATS.com Senior Editor

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