TUCSON, Ariz. (AP) — Arizona coach Sean Miller got the tough test he wanted, and his team passed with flying colors.
Miller said he scheduled Cal-Irvine because he knew the Anteaters were a strong, big, experienced team.
And Cal-Irvine showed it until the No. 2 Wildcats dominated the final 10 minutes for a 71-54 victory on Wednesday night.
“I know tonight we grew up a whole lot,” Arizona point guard T.J. McConnell said, “and we have a lot of confidence going into Maui.”
Rondae Hollis-Jefferson scored 19 points and Arizona used a stifling defense in a decisive second-half run.
The Wildcats (3-0) trailed from late in the first half until their defense intensified in a 15-0 run midway through the second half. The Anteaters (2-1) went six minutes without a point and committed five turnovers during the outburst.
“We can’t play any harder or more together on defense,” Miller said. “As our offense grows and develops and it will continue to get better, we have to be dominant defensively and that’s what won the game tonight.”
Arizona’s best offense was at the foul line, where the Wildcats made 29 of 34, 11 of 13 by Hollis-Jefferson. Cal-Irvine was 9 of 13 at the line.
The Wildcats were 34 of 60 (57 percent) from the line in the first two games.
“It’s all mental,” Hollis-Jefferson said. “You’ve got to have that confidence that it’s going to go in. It rubs off. Once one person starts making it, the other players on the team start making it and it gets contagious.”
McConnell had 12 points, six steals and nine rebounds. Brandon Ashley scored 11 for the Wildcats and freshman Stanley Johnson had 10 points and 10 rebounds.
Luke Nelson and Travis Souza scored 11 apiece for UC-Irvine.
Mamadou Ndiaye, the Anteaters’ 7-foot-6 center, scored nine, all in the first half, and was a formidable obstacle in the middle of the team’s zone defense.
“When the outside world looks at the final score, they’ll think that we had it in hand and had a real solid 18-, 20-point win,” Miller said. “That’s the furthest from the truth. We were tested tonight in a really big way. … You could see that they (the Anteaters) have the makings of a great season.”
Arizona outscored UC-Irvine 30-8 in the last 10 1/2 minutes.
“I think they caused us to fall apart,” Anteaters coach Russell Turner said. “It was not like we just quit playing, but they are a pretty good team, as you know and we know.”
Mike Best scored on a layup and the Anteaters led 46-41 with 10:30 to play.
Then came the run the big, loud McKale Center crowd had anticipated all night.
The first seven points came from the foul line, four by Hollis-Jefferson, who also missed a pair. His two free throws with 7:53 to play gave Arizona a 47-46 lead, its first since Ndiaye’s inside basket put UC-Irvine up 26-24 with 2:40 left in the first half.
The Anteaters finished the first half with a 7-2 spurt to lead 29-26 at the break.
McConnell sank a 3-pointer to ignite a 10-2 Arizona spurt and the Wildcats were on top, 24-22, after Hollis-Jefferson’s bank shot from inside the lane with 4:05 left in the half.
But that was Arizona’s last field goal of the half.
The crowd was never louder than when Hollis-Jefferson threw down a dunk over the Anteaters center.
“I just knew I had him once I saw him turned slow,” Hollis-Jefferson said. “I went up and jumped, and from there the rest was history. I definitely told my teammates I was going to dunk on him, too.”
UC-Irvine: Lost its 10th straight to a ranked team. … Arizona is the highest-ranked opponent the Anteaters have played since 1991 when they lost at No. 1 UNLV 114-86. … UC-Irvine has met Arizona once, losing in Tucson 93-70 in December, 1998. … The Anteaters’ 23 wins last season matched the second-most wins in school history.
Arizona: Played its third game in six days. … Wildcats have won 30 consecutive nonconference games. … Arizona has won 24 straight at home. … The Wildcats last played in the Maui Invitational in 2009, Sean Miller’s first season at Arizona.
UC-Irvine plays at St. Mary’s on Sunday night
Arizona plays Missouri next Monday in the opening round of the Maui Invitational
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