Taking finals and playing a weaker opponent than the Arizona Wildcats beat at Michigan last Saturday still wasn’t enough to turn Aaron Gordon’s motor off again Thursday.
UA’s well-regarded freshman forward flashed the usual intensity while collecting a career-high 21 points in Arizona’s 69-43 win over Southern University on Thursday at McKale Center.
But Gordon has also found that sometimes, just for a moment, it’s best to put things in idle and smile a bit.
That moment came in the second half of when Gordon went to the free throw line, and McKale Center came to a noticeable hush. Gordon entered the game shooting just 44.7 percent from the line, a stat that nearly everyone seemed aware of.
His first shot bounced off the rim and in the basket, prompting wide cheers. The second one swished, and the crowd went wild.
Gordon couldn’t help but notice.
“I think it’s funny. It’s hilarious,” Gordon said. “It’s pretty much a realization that I’m not making any free throws. It made me laugh. We have great fans, and I know they’re supportive of me. It helped me shoot a little bit better.”
Gordon could laugh because, for one thing, he said when he smiles “everything else is good.” For another reason: He said he’s not worried about shooting free throws, having done so earlier in his career and noting that he hit 85 of 100 in a pregame shootaround Thursday.
Still, Gordon went 4 for 10 from the line Thursday, and UA overall shot just 59.5 percent from the line.
“My shot is fine,” Gordon said. “I feel like my mechanics are good. … I’m thinking about it too much. It’s something I’m not worried about.”
UA coach Sean Miller noted, however, that Gordon’s 21 was “deceptive” because he could have been in the mid-20s with a good night at the line.
But, really, that wasn’t the biggest worry for Miller or Gordon. What was: That UA struggled to out-rebound Southern after destroying so many teams on the boards this season. Their edge on the boards was just 39-33 despite entering the game with an average rebounding advantage of 14.2.
Whereas Brandon Ashley had his fourth career double-double with 11 points and 10 rebounds, Gordon added just four rebounds to his 21 points.
“I think Aaron was disappointed,” Miller said. “I told him our team needs more than four rebounds. He’s too talented. He came into the game averaging over eight (8.2). With Aaron, we need to have eight or 10 rebounds. If he had done that, I would feel even better about (the game).”
Still, the Wildcats did have some excuses for their relative rebounding issues. Not only were they coming off an emotional win at Michigan last Saturday, but Miller said some of them were still taking finals and handing in papers earlier Thursday … and the Wildcats were also without center Kaleb Tarczewski.
Tarczewski sprained his ankle against Michigan last Saturday, and although UA moved to 12-0 by winning comfortably without him, his absence prompted Miller to start freshman Rondae Hollis-Jefferson at small forward, while moving Gordon to power forward and Ashley to center.
That made the entire front line smaller.
“Each of our players were bumped down a position … and you could see the physicality,” Miller said. “We didn’t look quite as big or strong rebounding the same way.”
After leading 34-19 at halftime, the Wildcats led only 36-26 when fans at McKale Center began cheering and jeering for more. Gordon broke them out of the funk with a three-pointer, just his seventh of the season, and added 3 of 4 free throws over the next five minutes while UA built its lead to 49-30 with 11:40 left.
The highlight of the first half, besides the dunk show put on by Gordon en route to his 10 first-half points, came during a timeout when an Air Force Master Sergeant surprisingly appeared to reunite with his family on the court after videotaping an address saying he was sorry he would miss Christmas.
“I sensed it in the huddle,” Miller said. “I wish our guys could have seen it.”
Gordon finished with 10 points and two rebounds in the first half, and Ashley had eight points and six rebounds. The Wildcats shot 54.2 percent from the field but made only 6 of 16 free throws in the half.
Arizona took an early lead of 15-5 when Miller began substituting beyond his usual top seven. He first put in reserve forward Matt Korcheck, and then used reserve guards Jordin Mayes and Elliott Pitts on the wings.
Nine players were in the game for six or more minutes but, UA received only four points and four rebounds combined from Mayes, Korcheck and Pitts.
Before the game, UA trainer Justin Kokoskie said Tarczewski did eight hours of rehabilitation on Wednesday but wasn’t healed enough to risk him playing tonight. Kokoskie said Tarczewski has been working on his strength, balance and conditioning.
“We’ll shoot for tomorrow or the next day, but we’re also not going to put him in a position of risk,” Kokoskie said.
Tarczewski is planning to remain in Tucson during UA’s three-day Christmas break, and he’s expected to rehab the entire time.
• Who: Northern Arizona at Arizona
• When: 8 p.m. Monday
• TV; radio: Pac-12 Arizona; 1290-AM