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Free throws have been anything but easy for Aaron Gordon this season. After missing his first four Thursday night, the McKale Center crowd stirred as he stepped up to the stripe early in the second half.
More than anything, that made him laugh and had a relaxing effect.
Gordon then connected on three in a row, accounted for the team's first 10 points of the half and the top-ranked Wildcats cruised past Southern University for the 69-43 victory.
"I think it's funny, it's hilarious," Gordon said of the crowd's reaction. "It's pretty much a realization that I'm not making any free throws."
The star freshman finished with a career-high 21 points on 8-of-11 shooting and four rebounds for Arizona (12-0), which shot 45.8 percent from the field.
It was Gordon's first outing above 20 points in his collegiate career.
But without the services of 7-foot center Kaleb Tarczewski, who was scratched before tipoff with a sprained right ankle, the Wildcats had just a 39-33 edge on rebounds.
UA head coach Sean Miller said there needed to be a better collective effort without his second-leading rebounder, and more than four rebounds from Gordon, who leads the team.
Miller added that Gordon is "too talented" and "too gifted" to not be closer to double figures on the glass.
"It's not just Kaleb's size," Miller said. "But remember that each one of our guys bumps down a position. ... Our guards have had the freedom sometimes to not block out because we're so gifted at the three, four and five. Tonight, we were back to that team where all five had to block out, and when we didn't there was a scramble.
"Brandon (Ashley) had 10, Rondae (Hollis-Jefferson) had eight; we needed Aaron to have eight or nine rebounds. If he would've done that tonight, I would feel even better about the victory, I really would."
Trailing by 15 at the break, the Jaguars (3-8) cut the deficit down to 36-26 on Javan Mitchell's hook in the first three minutes of the second half.
But Gordon answered with a tip-in off his own miss, a steal and a 3-pointer over the next two minutes. Leading 41-28, Gordon then toed the line and broke out of his funk, rattling in his first and swishing the next as the crowd of 14,149 roared sarcastically.
"You get a standing ovation when you make a free throw," Gordon said. "It just changed my body language. When I smile, everything else is better."
He would later split his next pair, missing badly off the glass and to the left, and finished the night 4 of 10 from the line.
Miller called Gordon's total a "deceptive 21," with a chance to finish closer to 25 or 30 with some made free throws.
It would not matter, however, as the Wildcats were never threatened. Brandon Ashley notched a double-double with 11 points and 10 rebounds and Nick Johnson added 17 points.
Miller was pleased with his team's ability to finish below double digits in turnovers for a second consecutive game, finishing with eight to the Jaguars' 14.
Southern, which shot just 34 percent, was paced by three double-figure scorers led by 11 apiece from Malcolm Miller and Calvin Godfrey.
"Arizona is a great basketball team," Jaguars head coach Roman Banks said, "but I thought at the end of the day we played on our toes. We had many open shots that we didn't make. Against a team like Arizona, you have to make those open shots in any opportunity you get."
Southern missed eight of its first 10 shots and finished at 7 of 24 in the half. UA capitalized with a quick 7-of-9 start on a series of easy baskets at the rim and in transition.
Leading 15-8, the Wildcats scored 16 of the next 19 points - highlighted by three consecutive Gordon baskets - to take a commanding 19-point lead with 4:44 left in the half.
Depending on how you look at Gordon's first half, it may or may not have been much of a success.
The 6-9 forward was 5 of 6 from the field but missed all four of his free throws. He came in shooting just 44.7 percent from the line.
If not for T.J. McConnell's playmaking - four of his five first-half assists came on Gordon baskets - the first 20 minutes could have been a struggle. The lone Gordon first-half field goal not set up by the point guard was a fadeaway in the lane.
Otherwise, everything else was either a dunk or layup for Gordon, whose 10 first-half points led all players.
"He's a great point guard," Gordon said of McConnell. "He's really savvy, knows the game well. He has eyes on the side of his head and the back of his head. When he drives to the lane he can tell when my man is cutting, so right when my man cuts we kind of just have this little ESP thing and he drops it off to me."
The Wildcats led 34-19 at the break, thanks in part to an 18-2 advantage in the paint.
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Click Here to view this Link.Tracy McDannald
GOAZCATS.com Senior Editor