It didn't come easy the entire night for the Arizona Wildcats in its opening night win over Mount St. Mary's but each time the Mountaineers threatened to make a game of it the Wildcats were able to respond with a surge. Brandon Ashley in his first game back after last season's foot fracture cost him the remainder of his season led the Wildcats with 21 points and six assists on 9-10 shooting.
Wildcats fans nationwide undoubtedly had slight groans and frustrations seeing Ashley's impact in his return and wondering what last year could have held with him in the lineup.
The front court of Ashely, Kaleb Tarczewski and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson dominated an undersized and undermanned Mount St. Mary's front line. The trio combined for 46 points on 20-24 shooting which featured a barrage of dunks and layups often times created by offensive rebounds. In the process the Wildcats out-rebounded the Mountaineers by a 35-24 margin, a blueprint of Arizona's success a season ago and one of the team's biggest advantages most likely again this season.
The game started slow for Arizona who couldn't pull away from Mount St. Mary's in the first 15 minutes in large part to some H.O.R.S.E caliber shots from Byron Ashe who despite his 6'1 stature played admirably in defeat with 12 points and four rebounds. Forward Kristijan Krajina chipped in 13 points to lead the Mountaineers. The Wildcats defense which will face some stern lectures in film session tomorrow for a few breakdowns on backdoor plays was overall pretty stout as usual.
The Wildcats forced 16 turnovers in all and it was a sequence just before halftime that broke things open as Arizona came up with three steals at midcourt in about a 60 second span all resulting in breakaway dunks to send the crowd into euphoria before the halftime horn.
Mount St. Mary's wouldn't cave though and got the game back as close as seven points with eleven minutes to play taking advantage of some jump shooting by the Wildcats to close the deficit. However it would only delay the inevitable as Arizona quickly responded with a 12-0 run fueled by a couple T.J McConnell buckets and some more tenacious defense on McConnell's behalf to set up fast break buckets.
From that point on it was a mixed bag of players contributing with freshman point guard Parker Jackson-Cartwright highlighting some of his potential with plays on the fast break and a three point connect of his own.
If Wildcats fans were to nitpick on opening night the takeaway would again come back to the weaknesses of a season ago with egregious free throw shooting (12-25) and poor perimeter shooting (4-16 from three). The game plan undoubtedly focused on getting the ball inside to the bigs who feasted all night leading the way for Arizona's opening night win.
Eyes now turn to Sunday night when Arizona returns to action in McKale against CSNorthridge. It may not have been a masterpiece but Arizona gave coaches and fans plenty to be optimistic about in its first meaningful action of the season.