Just like a season ago, Santa Clara wouldn’t go away.
The Broncos (3-3) never held a lead, but kept the score within single digits nearly the entire game and it was 59-58 Arizona with roughly four minutes left.
But the Wildcats (5-0) hit big shots down the stretch, and their defense got the stops it needed to escape Vegas with an eight-point victory.
Jared Brownridge, who scored 44 points against the Wildcats last season, posted 25 points on 8-19 shooting. Henrik Jadersten and Nate Kratch each scored 10 points.
Simmons hit a 3 to make it a 22-12 game with 11:57 left in the first half, but the Broncos were able to tie it up at 25-25 thanks in part to two 3s by Brownridge. The Wildcats re-took the lead and extended it to 32-27 with 3:55 left in the first half, but Brownridge scored four unanswered points to make it 32-31.
Dusan Ristic showed off some good footwork on the low block to make it 34-31, then the teams traded 3s to make it 37-34 at halftime.
Arizona shot 52 percent (14-27) from the field in the first half, while Santa Clara shot 43 percent (13-30). The Wildcats were 6-12 from 3, the Broncos were 6-13.
The second half was much of the same. Arizona was able to extend its lead to eight or nine points, but Santa Clara continued to hang around.
Markkanen hit a 3 with 10:04 left to put Arizona up 55-46, and then the Wildcats’ offense stalled and Santa Clara countered with a 12-4 run — capped by a Brownridge 3 — to make it 59-58 with 4:21 left in regulation.
Parker Jackson-Cartwright pushed Arizona’s lead to 64-58 with just over three minutes left, then Brownridge (who else?) matched it with a 3 of his own.
Simmons hit Santa Clara with a step back jumper to make it 66-61 with 2:25 left and Arizona’s defense was able to hold off the Broncos for good.
Arizona shot 48 percent from the field and 9-18 from 3, while Santa Clara shot 40 percent from the field and 12-31 from 3.
Free throw problems
Arizona had been a terrific free throw shooting team heading into this game, but finally had an off night from the charity stripe, shooting 12-19.
Don’t blame Markkanen, though, as he connected on 6 of his 7 free throw attempts.
The 7-footer is now shooting 28 of 30 from the line this season.
Better job on Brownridge
Arizona had no answer for Brownridge last Thanksgiving, but they did a much better job defending him this time, often forcing him to settle for long, contested jumpers.
He made a lot of those shots last year, and did again this time, but the Wildcats did a better job of keeping the ball out of his hands.
Brownridge had 16 of Santa Clara’s 34 first-half points, and knocked down four of his first five 3s, but slowed down considerably after that.
Simmons and Kadeem Allen were primarily guarding Brownridge, and part of the reason Brownridge had more success in the first half is because Allen picked up two early fouls and was limited to 10 first-half minutes.
It was Brownridge’s 28th game in a row with 10+ points, so it’s not like Arizona is the only team the guard lights up, but I bet the Wildcats don’t mind that Santa Clara isn’t on the schedule again this season.
All-around game for Dusan
It has been a Jekyll and Hyde-type of season for Dusan Ristic so far — with more bad moments than good moments — but he played a solid game against Santa Clara.
He scored 12 points on 6-11 shooting, and grabbed four boards in 26 minutes.
Offensively, Ristic was patient when he got the ball in the post and was willing to find the open man if the defense converged on him. At the same time, when the defense decided to not give help, he showed off his diverse post game and touch around the basket.
Ristic also held his own defensively. The Broncos have a frontcourt that can shoot, but isn’t the most athletic, and it proved to be a good matchup for Arizona’s starting center.
He was not forced to defend off the dribble, and wasn’t attacked often in the pick-and-roll.
Of else to note, that same Santa Clara frontcourt gave the Wildcats trouble on the perimeter. Arizona was often slow extending out to contest their shots, but it didn’t cost the Wildcats as much as it probably should have. The Broncos missed 19 3s, with a decent number of them being open looks.
Lauri Markkanen’s dad points out a flaw
Markkanen didn’t have the best game for his standards, but still posted 16 points and nine rebounds. He was 2-6 from 3 and, as mentioned earlier, 6-7 from the free throw line.
He missed a couple shots around the basket and a pull-up off the dribble, and finished 4-11 from the field.
But as Markkanen’s dad, Pekka, pointed out, he has “some problems” defensively.
In fairness, Markkanen looked exhausted at times, playing 36 minutes. Getting him more rest would be ideal, but as Miller said after the Northern Colorado game, he is hard to take off the floor when opponents are playing zone, especially since Arizona does not have another big man that can stretch the floor.
All in all, this was probably Markkanen’s worst game at Arizona, but he still scored 16 points on 11 shots and grabbed nine rebounds so, yeah, he’s pretty good at this basketball thing.
Simmons was one of three Wildcats to score in double figures, and was mighty efficient. The guard had 14 points on just seven shots, knocking down three 3s in 23 minutes.
As mentioned earlier, he also helped chip in defending Brownridge, and has become one of Arizona’s better on-ball defenders.
Also, this nasty step back — which was the Fox Sports 1 play of the game — iced the game for Arizona.
Final box score
Arizona will face Butler Friday at 8:30 p.m. MST in Las Vegas to wrap up the Las Vegas Invitational. Allonzo Trier will not play as he did not travel with the team.
You can follow Ryan Kelapire on Twitter at @RKelapire