LAHAINA, Hawaii (AP) — Slow starts and strong finishes are nothing new to Arizona. The Wildcats did it in three games on the mainland and started the Maui Invitational the same way.
They better get it fixed fast with the competition ramping up over the next two days.
Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Brandon Ashley each scored 15 points, helping No. 2 Arizona wear down Missouri for a 72-53 victory in the opening round the Maui Invitational on Monday.
“That initial surge out of the gates of playing well at both ends, I don’t know if we’ve really done that,” Arizona coach Sean Miller said. “I can also flip it and make it a positive, because like every team at this time of the year, you’re in search of getting better and improving. Today is another step for our team.”
Arizona (4-0) got off to slow starts in two of its first three games and wasn’t exactly sharp early against the Tigers.
The Wildcats struggled to hit shots from the perimeter and were at times disjointed offensively before a short spurt put them up five a halftime.
They made up for it on defense, holding Missouri (2-2) to 36 percent shooting, including 2 of 13 from 3-point range.
Freshman Stanley Johnson had 14 points for Arizona and T.J. McConnell nine assists to offset a 2-for-11 game from the floor.
“I’m going to take something that coach has said in the past: A great defensive team is never selfish,” Ashley said. “What that means basically is that if somebody gets beat, you’re going to be there to help them out.”
Missouri kept it close in the first half in the first half behind its defense.
The Tigers let the game get away from them because they couldn’t hold onto the ball on offense.
Missouri had 17 turnovers that led to 24 points for Arizona, dooming any hope of keeping up with the Wildcats.
Montaque Gill-Caesar led the Tigers with 13 points.
“We didn’t make the correct passes and (it was) the pressure, so we can’t really blame one thing — it was both,” said Missouri’s Keith Shamburger, who had 11 points.
Arizona pulled away in the second half to beat Mount St. Mary’s and UC Irvine before heading to Maui.
The young Tigers opened the season with a frustrating 69-61 loss to Missouri-Kansas City, but bounced back with victories over Valparaiso and Oral Roberts. Missouri showed off its shooting prowess against Oral Roberts, hitting 8 of 9 3-pointers in second half to pull away from Oral Roberts for a 78-64 win.
Neither team could hit much of anything early in Maui.
Arizona has struggled from the perimeter this season and it continued against the active Tigers. The Wildcats missed their first eight 3-pointers before getting a couple to drop late in the first half to take a 32-25 lead.
The Tigers had trouble with Arizona’s length and athleticism, struggling to get good looks inside and clanking a couple of long 3-pointers high off the glass. Missouri shot 8 of 24 in the first half.
Arizona started to find the range a bit by getting the ball inside, hitting five of its first 10 shots to build the lead to 11 early in the second half.
The Wildcats kept dropping shots — 11 of 23 in the half — but kept stretching the lead for a spot in the Maui semifinals.
“We played some different defenses to see if we could slow them down a little bit, but they’re a great team and it won’t work forever,” Missouri coach Kim Anderson said. “But it worked for a while.”
Missouri: Wes Clark, who averaged 14 points through the first three games, had three points on 1-of-6 shooting.
Arizona: Arizona hit 19 of 25 free throws for its best performance from the line this season. … The Wildcats hit a couple of shots late to finish 5 for 16 from 3-point range.
Missouri: will face Purdue in the Maui Invitational loser’s bracket on Tuesday.
Arizona: plays Kansas State in the tournament semifinals on Tuesday.
Miller has used Hollis-Jefferson in the sixth man role this season because he likes the spark the high-energy sophomore provides off the bench. With Arizona in a bit of a lull most of the first half, Miller swapped out Gabe York for Hollis-Jefferson to start the second. RHJ, as he’s known, scored five quick points, including his first 3-pointer of the season, to help spark Arizona’s run in the second half.
Arizona has been one of the nation’s best rebounding teams over the past few seasons and have a long, athletic team that’s difficult to grab boards against. Though a bit smaller than the Wildcats, Missouri was able to out-rebound Arizona 34-32, including eight offensive rebounds.