TUCSON, Ariz. — Listening to his coach’s admonishment to attack more, Arizona freshman Rondae Hollis-Jefferson took off from the right side of the lane, planted his right arm on his opponent’s head and unleashed a vicious tomahawk dunk that left the home crowd stunned.
Letdown? It was more of a beatdown.
Shaking off a slow start as they adjusted to a quirky defense, Arizona showed no sign of slowing down in its first game as the nation’s No. 1 team, racing to a 74-48 victory over New Mexico State on Wednesday night.
“We just go out there and play like we’re playing a Duke every night,” Arizona point guard T.J. McConnell said. “We wanted to be underdogs at No. 1 and just go out and play as we hard.”
Arizona (10-0) labored out of the gate in its first game in a decade at No. 1, unsure of what to do against New Mexico State’s unique defense.
Once the Wildcats figured it out, the rout was on.
Putting on a show for the home fans, Arizona turned a close game into a rout with an array of dunks, 3-pointers and a suffocating defense that made every shot a test for the Aggies.
Brandon Ashley showed off his improved perimeter shooting, hitting all three of his 3-point attempts while scoring 15 points. Kaleb Tarczewski didn’t back down from Sim Bhullar, the Aggies’ 7-foot-5 center, repeatedly finishing at the rim and making all five of his shots for 14 points.
McConnell had nine points and six assists while orchestrating Arizona’s offense, and Hollis-Jefferson provided a big lift with 12 points, eight rebounds and the one big dunk.
The Wildcats shot 52 percent, dominated the glass (38-22) and held their fifth opponent under 60 points to open 10-0 in consecutive seasons for the first time as a program.
“Once we figured out what they were doing, we pretty much got what we wanted,” Arizona coach Sean Miller said.
New Mexico State (7-5) tried extending the shot clock on offense and had six different looks on defense, including a tandem-and-3 — three players in man-to-man, two in zone in the middle of the lane — that briefly befuddled the Wildcats.
None of it worked against the big, athletic Wildcats.
Daniel Mullings had 18 points to lead the Aggies, who made 2 of 11 from 3-point range and shot 33 percent to lose their fourth straight.
“We ran into a better team and they are No. 1 in the nation for a reason,” Aggies coach Marvin Menzies said. “I have to give credit when credit is due, but I think we didn’t play as well as we could have.”
Arizona reeled off an impressive list of victories during its opening nine-game winning streak, including at San Diego State, Duke at Madison Square Garden to win the NIT Season Tip-off and a grind-it-out win over UNLV last week.
With former No. 1 Michigan State’s loss to North Carolina last week, the Wildcats moved atop The Associated Press poll for the first time since 2003 and became the Pac-12’s first top-ranked team since UCLA in 2006.
They didn’t get much time to celebrate with two difficult opponents this week, including Michigan in Ann Arbor on Saturday.
Before Arizona hits the road, though, it had to deal with the Aggies and Bhullar, their paint-filling center.
Bhullar wasn’t much of a factor, but the Wildcats got off to a ragged start against New Mexico State’s defense, turning it over three times in the first 4 minutes while missing seven of their first nine shots.
Once the Wildcats figured out what the Aggies were doing, there was no stopping them.
Ashley keyed the Wildcats’ offense early — 10 points in 10 minutes — and Hollis-Jefferson provided an energy boost after that.
The freshman hit a pull-up jumper, tracked down a rebound and throwing a ball off a New Mexico State player to keep a possession alive, then found Aaron Gordon for a reverse layup.
Hollis-Jefferson followed with one of the most spectacular dunks so far this season, throwing down the tomahawk over Dixon that drew a huge “Ohh!” from the McKale Center crowd and earned him a three-point play.
“I can’t coach what Rondae did,” Miller said. “He just grabbed the guy, took him up put him in the rim with the ball. That’s what you call going strong.”
Arizona didn’t let up from there, extending an eight-point halftime lead by making 17 of 29 shots in the second half while holding the Aggies to 5-of-21 shooting.
Johnson punctuated the runaway with about 5 minutes left, throwing down a two-handed, 360 dunk on a breakaway to put Arizona up 67-45.
“We were trying to take away Arizona’s 3s, their easy layups and dunks,” Aggies center Tshilidzi Nephawe said. “Our defense just couldn’t keep up.”