TUCSON, Ariz. (AP) — Brandon Ashley’s right foot is feeling just fine. So are the Arizona Wildcats after a sputtering start.
Ashley scored a career-high 21 points in his return to the lineup, and No. 2 Arizona shook off a shaky start to open the season with a 78-55 win over Mount St. Mary’s Friday night.
“Being the first game that really meant something and also having a full house, it (jitters) was in the back of everyone’s mind,” said Arizona center Kaleb Tarczewski, who finished with 10 points and 10 rebounds. “Once we started playing basketball and went on that little run, everyone’s nerves calmed down.”
Playing under the weight of expectations and in front of an amped-up opening-night crowd, Arizona was out of sorts early, throwing away passes away and allowing some easy baskets.
The Wildcats got rolling late in the first half with a closing 12-0 run to build and 15-point and were barely challenged after that.
Rondae Hollis-Jefferson provided a big lift with his high energy, harassing defense and array of soaring dunks, finishing with 15 points.
That was expected; Hollis-Jefferson did that as a freshman last season.
The uncertain element came from Ashley.
The versatile 6-foot-8 forward missed the final 16 games of last season with a broken foot and though he played well in Arizona’s exhibition game, the real test was going to come under the spotlight of playing games that count.
Ashley passed the test perfectly, giving the Mountaineers problems at both ends, altering shots on defense while finishing 9 of 10 from the floor.
“It’s confirmation I’m still able to compete at this level, still feel good about myself,” Ashley said. “Playing well like that is a confidence boost as well.”
An NCAA Tournament team a year ago, Mount St. Mary’s managed to keep Arizona within reach for most of the first half. Once the bigger, more athletic Wildcats turned up the pressure, the Mountaineers couldn’t keep up, helpless as Arizona turned one steal after another — 11 in all — into a series of dunks and layups on the break.
Kristijan Krajina had 13 points and Byron Ashe added 12 for Mount St. Mary’s, which was outscored 19-0 on the break after turning it over 16 times.
“I thought our guys competed well,” Mountaineers coach Jamion Christian said. “Arizona is an excellent team and they’re so well-coached. We learn so much from playing guys like these and coaches like Sean Miller.”
With a solid returning core and another strong recruiting class, Arizona entered the season with lofty expectations, yet coach Sean Miller said the preseason hype may have been overhyped, at least for now.
Early on against Mount St. Mary’s, it seemed to be onto something as Arizona looked a bit disjointed on offense, struggling with turnovers — five in the first six minutes — and getting good looks at the basket.
And, after needing 4 1-2 minutes to get its first field goal, Mount St. Mary’s started hitting a few shots and was still within 28-25 late in the first half.
Then Arizona hit the accelerator.
Running off three straight steals and breakaway dunks in 45 seconds — Hollis-Jefferson’s tomahawk was particularly nice — the Wildcats closed the first half with a 12-0 run to lead 40-25.
Mount St. Mary’s had one more run in it, using a 6-0 spurt to pull within seven.
Arizona erased that hope quickly, using a 12-0 run to push the lead to 63-44 before cruising to the victory.
Arizona struggled with two areas most of last season: Perimeter shooting and free throws.
The theme continued in the opener of this season. The Wildcats made 4 of 16 from 3-point range and were 12 of 25 on free throws, numbers that will surely need to get better as the season progresses.
Mount St. Mary’s: Christian grabbed guard Junior Robinson around the waist and carried him off the court at halftime after the frustrated point guard had three straight turnovers (six total) to end the first half. … Mount St. Mary’s missed its first six shots and shot 38 percent overall.
Arizona: The Wildcats played their first game at McKale Center after a $30 million renovation during the offseason. … Highly-touted freshman Stanley Johnson scored the first basket of his college career on a left-handed layup in traffic. He finished with eight points on 2-of-8 shooting.
Arizona hosts Cal-State Northridge on Sunday.
Mount St. Mary’s hosts Maryland-Eastern Shore next Wednesday.
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