There's no more winning streak to protect, only one to build. There's no Brandon Ashley, so for the Arizona Wildcats to pretend to be something they're not isn't going to work.
On Sunday, they realized those two things. And they just played ball.
Arizona's 76-54 win over the Oregon State Beavers on Sunday in Tucson saw the Wildcats get back to playing with aggression. That started at the individual level. An confident-lacking Aaron Gordon was at the heart of the issue in the last several weeks, but after slogging through poor shooting games where he shot often but with too many second thoughts, he led Arizona with 17 points on 8-of-12 shooting.
Having been disrespected in past games and early on by OSU may have finally caught up to the freshman forward. Early on, Gordon dribbled to within 15 feet and pulled up for a jumper. The first jump-shot attempt was a miss, but it was a sign he wanted to make the Beavers think twice about playing 10 feet off of him. Later on, he drilled a three-pointer. And in the second half, a powerful dribble into the paint led to a behind-the-back misdirection dribble that allowed Gordon to get to the cup for a layup.
The quick decisions and attacking mentality mirrored what fellow freshman Rondae Hollis-Jefferson has played with throughout the year. Hollis-Jefferson's second start since Ashley's injury went, unsurprisingly, similarly to Gordon's day. He started the game by hitting a contested 15-foot fadeaway on the block, then worked a give-and-go with Kaleb Tarczewski to earn the big man a trip to the foul stripe.
Jefferson finished with 16 points, five boards and three assists, taking the most shot attempts for Arizona in going 6-of-13.
It was a reminder that this team is still mighty talented, even if the defensive dropoff following the loss of Ashley became clear.
Oregon State scored decently with the Wildcats in the first half and found itself down 37-27 at the intermission. As the game wore on, Arizona's defense wore on them, and especially on leading scorer Roberto Nelson. The UA guards took their turns on the 22-point per game scorer, holding Nelson to 3-of-12 shooting and 10 points.
Nelson took reckless drives to the hoop and seemed disinterested in passing out of the help defense the Wildcats employed working across screens. Though Nelson had four assists, he didn't handle three Wildcats smothering him well. Maybe it wouldn't have mattered, because fellow guards Langston Morris-Walkers and Hallice Cook combined to score nine points while shooting just 3-of-12.
Forward Eric Moreland was active on the glass early on, but he also took the hit in what became a statement game for Gordon against a potential NBA talent.
The macro result was that the Wildcats dominated a bigger team.
Rather than losing in the paint to the Beavers, the Wildcats' only disadvantage up front seemed to be with OSU center Angus Brandt, who was a mismatch as a floor-stretching big man. Arizona outscored Oregon State 40-12 in the paint and out-rebounded OSU 39-24 -- most of those came offensively.
The Wildcats shot 50 percent, and did so without much perimeter shooting. They scored 16 points off 12 turnovers, a sign the offense especially thrived with the Beavs on their heels.
Still, the Wildcats' perimeter shooting might continue to be serious issue. Gabe York scored three, Elliott Pitts missed three shots and only Jordin Mayes had any scoring success off the bench, adding nine.
Tarczewski was limited again but grabbed a team-high seven boards. Nick Johnson was quiet with 10 points, and T.J. McConnell picked his offensive spots to be aggressive while finding a groove, distributing the ball for six assists.
But the biggest story of Sunday was the growth of Gordon and Hollis-Jefferson, who now find themselves shouldering a good amount of the load for the time being -- at least with Johnson and Tarczewski banged up with wrist injuries.
As the college rankings confirm, the Wildcats are still a damn good team and quite clearly still in charge of the Pac-12 race.
- Arizona hockey: Wildcats escape Colorado with 2-1-0 record
- Oregon State vs. Arizona: Time, TV and scouting the Beavs
- Arizona basketball: On Brandon Ashley's NBA decision and Elliott Pitts' impact
- Oregon vs. Arizona final score: Flaws aside, Wildcats still a force
- Oregon vs. Arizona: Moving on sans Brandon Ashley