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Arizona-UNLV Final Score: Cats Scratch and Claw Way to #1

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Behind stout second half defense and the play-making of T.J McConnell, Arizona was able to hold off UNLV late and position itself to return to #1 in the polls on Monday.

Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

If things were supposed to come easy for Arizona on Saturday surely nobody told UNLV.

Things all seemed to be going to plan early for Arizona who jumped out to a quick lead behind a couple quick buckets from Kaleb Tarczewski and it seemed like another ho-hum game with the Arizona front line overwhelming an inferior opponent. However Roscoe Smith perked up some ears in Tucson earlier this week when he suggested Arizona was "probably intimidated by us." To his credit, UNLV came out and backed it up.

The Rebels put up the most productive half against Arizona to date this season with a 42 point first half behind some hot shooting and really more than anything else a fearlessness you must have on the road against the #2 team in the nation. The Wildcats couldn't lock in on any one guy as the Rebels got production from a number of guys but Bryce Dejean-Jones and Uconn transfer Roscoe Smith were two of the most consistent players.

However Coach Miller gave what was likely a speech that can't be repeated verbatim on any website and the Wildcats got back to what made them one of the top defensive teams in the country. UNLV was held to 16 second half points and despite a flurry of turnovers for Arizona, the defense kept UNLV from being able to stretch the lead out by locking down the three point line and forcing UNLV into contested shots.

Offensively it was a balanced effort once again for the Wildcats putting four guys into double figures with nobody putting in more than 13. However it seemed to be the T.J McConnell show in the second half as McConnell had a key steal on a UNLV outlet pass for a bucket then curled off a screen for a straight on jumper in a big spot for the Cats. When he wasn't scoring himself he was finding his teammates for looks, perhaps none bigger than a backdoor cut for a dunk to Rondae Hollis-Jefferson that stretched the Arizona lead from one to three with 2:22 to play after a long stretch of one point leads.

Arizona went very short with its rotation playing predominantly six men which made things even more concerning later. Aaron Gordon caught an inadvertent elbow from Brandon Ashley late in the game and then Ashley picked up a fourth foul not long after forcing Arizona to have to fight foul trouble and injury concerns. Still the craftiness of McConnell and Arizona's stellar defense enabled the Wildcats to hang on late and secure the victory to move to 9-0 on the season.

Perhaps most encouraging was the Wildcats ability to overcome an off night from Nick Johnson and really an ugly game from beyond the arc from the team as a whole. The Wildcats one Achilles heel coming into the year for many was who would be the perimeter shooting threat and who would step up in crunch time. Nick Johnson seemed to be one of the top candidates to do so and in a rather poor game for him Arizona was able to overcome that and find ways to get baskets late which could bode well for players' confidence later in the year.

It was not pretty by any stretch of the imagination but after 10 years of wait I think Arizona fans can surely overlook that when the Wildcats return to the top of the polls on Monday for the first time since 2003.

Arizona is back in business Wednesday vs New Mexico State at home before a big road test next Saturday at Michigan.