By the time Sunday morning rolled around, the Arizona Wildcats had already enjoyed a day of sleeping and watching college football, and their hangover really didn’t feel so bad.
“I was ready to get going again,” UA guard Nick Johnson said. “Everybody had been talking about Duke. But we were pretty much over that. We just wanted to move forward.”
So, after Arizona beat Duke on Friday and jumped to No. 2 in the national polls, they moved on. Quickly. As in a 10-0 lead over Texas Tech early en route to a 79-58 win at McKale Center.
It wasn’t perfect, by any means — the Wildcats (8-0) had 11 first-half turnovers — but it was more than enough to keep coach Sean Miller happy after what could have been one of those too-common coaches’ nightmares known as the letdown. With point guard T.J. McConnell keeping UA focused, Aaron Gordon, Brandon Ashley and Johnson combined for 55 points to lead the way.
Not only had Arizona beaten Duke on a huge stage, at Madison Square Garden and on ESPN, but the Wildcats also suffered a grueling return flight on a regional jet that stopped twice and took about eight hours to reach Tucson by sunrise Saturday.
So there was a combination of physical and emotional fatigue that hovered over them as they turned around quickly to host a hungry, nothing-to-lose Texas Tech team that is attempting to rebuild under first-year coach Tubby Smith.
“I was really worried about tonight’s game,” Miller said. “To play two very difficult games with a lot of pressure and then on Friday evening … we flew all night. I wish this game had been a day later. I was just hopeful that our team could move from that trip and come here and play.”
Once the game began, though, Miller never really had to worry much. The Wildcats did see their lead cut to just five points several times in the first half and to 15 several times in the second, but the Wildcats were never really in any sort of trouble.
And, Johnson said, the mistakes they did make weren’t hangover-related as much as just general carelessness.
“We came out pretty strong and I felt like we were kind of rolling,” said Johnson, who had a career-high four three-pointers. “Some (turnovers) were a result of bad passes and some were just being lackadaisical, not catching the ball, stuff like that. But we had only four in the second half … we fixed that a little bit. We just have to concentrate on that.”
They also made Texas Tech pay dearly for its turnovers. In fact, UA scored 18 points off the Red Raiders’ 13 turnovers, while Texas Tech scored just 13 off Arizona’s 15 total turnovers.
This trend was no clearer than early in the second half, when McConnell picked off a Texas Tech inbound pass to record two assists and a steal within five seconds.
After Ashley grabbed a defensive rebound, McConnell dished to Gordon for a dunk — then stole the ball from Texas Tech and set up Johnson for a three-pointer.
“The steal just kind of came natural,” McConnell said. “I saw he was kind of taking the ball out of bounds lackadaisically and Nick was just in the right spot. I flipped it to him and he made the shot like he always has.”
McConnell finished with a season-high 10 assists to three turnovers, despite playing only 26 minutes in part because of two early fouls he picked up.
His 10 assists were the most as a Wildcat, though he had 11 with Duquesne against District of Columbia during the 2011-12 season.
“Twenty six minutes, 10 assists — that means you dominated the game on offense,” Miller said. “Especially when you consider he had three turnovers. That ratio, he’s just making his teammates better, he’s just doing an exceptional job for us right now.”
As usual, though, there was hardly one offensive hero for Arizona. Gordon led the Cats in scoring with a career-high 19 points, going 7 for 10 from the field though just 4 of 10 from the free-throw line, while Ashley set season highs in points (18) and rebounds (10).
Ashley was also close to his career highs, having scored 20 points against Long Beach State last season and 11 rebounds against NAU, and actually did hit one career high by making 2 of 2 three-pointers.
He had only made one before, in four previous games, including against Duke, and said he’s worked hard on the shot and become more comfortable with it.
Both of Ashley’s threes on Tuesday were wide-open shots that the Cats clearly need him to make, having lost strong-shooting big man Grant Jerrett after last season.
“Brandon knows a wide-open three is a good shot for us,” Miller said. “He works very hard at it and he’s going to shoot a big percentage.”
The Cats dominated in other areas, too. They shot 50 percent from the field and crushed the Red Raiders on the boards, 43-23, while holding Texas Tech to just 1-for-11 three-point shooting.
Good numbers, and especially considering the circumstances, numbers that Miller could not complain about.
“I think it was a tribute to our team,” he said, “that we were able to focus and play at the level we played at.”