SAN DIEGO – A combination of experience and freshman talent helped the Arizona Wildcats overcome a rowdy crowd and foul trouble in a 69-60 win over San Diego State tonight at Viejas Arena.
Junior point guard T.J. McConnell had seven points and six assists, helping put the game away when he assisted a field goal from freshman Aaron Gordon on an inbounds pass with 1:22 to go, while junior Nick Johnson was the Wildcats’ leading scorer with 23 points.
Gordon, meanwhile, once again led up to his considerable preseason hype, with 16 points on 7-for-12 shooting, though he missed a third straight double-double while collecting six rebounds.
Arizona held San Diego State to just 36-percent shooting and was particularly tough on highly regarded Aztec big man Josh Davis, who had just two points on 1-for-7 shooting. Arizona also outrebounded SDSU 39-28.
The win moved Arizona to 3-0 heading into the NIT Season Tip-Off next week. SDSU dropped to 1-1.
SDSU guard Xavier Thames twice pulled the Aztecs within seven points in the final six minutes, the last 60-53 with 4:09 left. Thames later cut it to six, 62-56, on a pair of free throws with 2:42 left and after McConnell missed a three-pointer with 2:08 left, Arizona called a timeout.
But after the timeout, Thames came back for another layup to cut Arizona’s lead to just four points, its smallest lead of the second half, as the Viejas crowd rose to its feet.
After a timeout with 1:22 remaining, however, McConnell hit Gordon on the inbounds pass, and Gordon scored inside while picking up a foul.
Gordon missed the ensuing free throw but UA took a 64-58 lead into the final minute and SDSU failed to score on two straight possessions, sending a third of the sellout crowd home. Arizona then hung on in the final seconds.
Thames, who transferred from Washington State after his freshman season when he played mostly behind Reggie Moore, finished with 19 points. JJ O’Brien also had 19 for SDSU.
Earlier, San Diego State pulled within 56-46 with 6:41 left in the game, after the Wildcats went ahead by 14 points three times earlier in the second half.
The Aztecs cut Arizona’s lead to eight points, while the Wildcats ran into foul trouble early in the second half. Brandon Ashley picked up his fourth foul with 14:30 left in the game while three other UA players had three fouls each: Gordon, Johnson and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson.
Hollis-Jefferson wound up fouling out with 5:07 left, but no other Wildcats fouled out.
In the first half, UA took a 39-28 lead at halftime thanks largely to Gordon and Johnson.
Gordon scored 12 points on 5-for-5 shooting and picked up three steals despite being limited to 13 minutes because of foul trouble. Johnson had 10 points, three rebounds and an assist.
Arizona shot 53.8 percent overall from the field. While the Wildcats had eight turnovers, San Diego State scored only six points off them and the Wildcats scored 10 points off SDSU’s six turnovers.
O’Brien and Winston Shepard each had eight points to lead SDSU.
The Wildcats opened up their lead to 24-11 with 8:43 left in the half by the time Gordon scored inside to keep on a nearly point-a-minute pace but two straight UA turnovers led to two straight SDSU layups, firing the sellout crowd back up at Viejas Arena and cutting the Wildcats’ lead to nine points.
Gordon picked up his second foul with 9:12 left in the half and sat out for the next five minutes. While the Aztecs matched the Wildcats over the next five minutes Arizona pulled ahead toward the end with driving baskets from McConenll, Johnson and Gabe York.
The high-profile game went off to a jittery start, with both teams committing four turnovers before the first media timeout at 12:54. On Arizona’s first four possessions, the Wildcats had two turnovers and two badly missed field goal attempts, a three-point try by Ashley and a layup by McConnell.
Gordon was forced into one of his turnovers by a trap but rebounded to pace the Wildcats early. He hit scored from three-point range, mid-range and inside to total seven points over the first seven minutes.
Arizona managed to take a 14-9 lead by the first media timeout, with 12:54 left in the half, and hung on to it from there.
The Wildcats won’t have a game this weekend but instead will host Fairleigh Dickinson on Monday for the first game of the NIT and then play a second game on Tuesday.
If the Wildcats win their first two NIT games, they will advance to New York for semifinals and finals on Nov. 27 and 29.