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Lauri Markkanen leads Arizona past Cal State Bakersfield

Lauri Markkanen drives against Cal State Bakersfield in the Arizona Wildcats' win on Tuesday, Nov. 15, 2016. (Associated Press)

TUCSON, Ariz. (AP) — Two games in and Arizona freshman Lauri Markkanen is already drawing high praise from his coach.

“Lauri’s one of the best players in college basketball,” Sean Miller said. “He is. He’s a monster.”

The 18-year-old 7-footer from Finland scored 26 points and the 10th-ranked Wildcats held off a furious second-half rally by Cal State Bakersfield for a 78-66 victory on Tuesday night.

Jaylin Airington scored 31 for the Roadrunners (1-1) and led a 17-0 run that cut Arizona’s lead to four with 9:04 to play. But Markkanen sank a 3-pointer, converted a three-point play and made a short jumper to lead the Wildcats out of trouble.

Markkanen is accustomed to such moments.

“I am used to it,” he said. “Pretty much my whole life, in big moments, I have the ball in my hands.”

The already short-handed Wildcats (2-0) were without starting senior guard Kadeem Allen, who sprained a knee in Arizona’s 65-63 victory over Michigan State last Friday in Honolulu.

Rawle Alkins was 4 for 6 on 3-pointers and scored 15 for the Wildcats and Kobi Simmons added 13. Both also are freshmen.

Dedrick Basile added 14 for Bakersfield

“Having the opportunity to play a top 10 team is going to give us an opportunity to have some confidence coming out of this game,” Roadrunners coach Rod Barnes said.

Airington was 10 for 25 from the field, and Miller said it’s hard to get 25 shots in a college game. It wasn’t enough.

“It was a good individual effort,” Airington said, “but I wanted to win more than anything.”

Arizona was up 44-26 at the half and was cruising along when a tip-in by yet another freshman, Keanu Pinder, gave the Wildcats a 53-32 lead with 14:45 to play. Arizona didn’t score for the next 6:46.

The McKale Center crowd fell into an uncomfortable silence when Damine Durham’s basket cut the lead to 53-49 with 9:04 to play.

A ruckus under the Arizona basket finally woke the Wildcats up.

Chance Comanche went up for a layup and was hit hard by a pair of Bakersfield defenders. Some shoving occurred with Comanche lying on the court and officials called time out to review the incident on video.

Taze Moore was called for a flagrant foul one and Comanche ended the long drought by making one of two free throws with 7:59 left. Arizona got the ball out of bounds on the play and Markkanen sank his only 3 of the night to boost the lead to 57-49.

Playing small forward on Arizona’s big front line, he drove hard down the lane, was fouled and converted a three-point play with 5:51 left and made a short jumper with 5:17 to go, giving the Wildcats a 64-54 lead and they held on from there.

“Lauri’s strong,” Miller said. “He’s not skinny, he’s not thin. He’s 18 years old buy physically he can take a pounding and I think that really shows. He doesn’t appear to be 7 foot because he’s not a rail-thin 7-footer.

“His pull-ups that he made tonight, watching him go to the free throw line under pressure, he’s a special, special player.”

He’s also a great team player and a good student.

“I don’t think he’s got a B at Arizona,” Miller said. “And practice-wise he’s consumed with becoming a great player. He’s one of our team’s hardest workers. … I’m so glad we have him.”

BIG PICTURE

Cal State Bakersfield: The Roadrunners were not cowed by the atmosphere and look like WAC contenders.

Arizona: After the opener against a big name school, the young Wildcats fell into a lull with a big lead. That might not have happened if Allen had been available.

PLAYER SHORTAGE

The absence of Allen left Arizona with only seven scholarship players with a particular shortage at guard. It got even worse when Jackson-Cartwright got into foul trouble.

UP NEXT

Arizona: Plays the second of three straight home nonconference game against teams from lesser conferences, facing Sacred Heart on Friday night.

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