The Antelopes (5-5) hung around and cut Arizona’s lead to single-digits twice in the final six minutes, but the Wildcats were able to escape with victory.
Kobi Simmons led Arizona with 13 points, while Lauri Markkanen, Rawle Alkins, and Dusan Ristic each added 11.
DeWayne Russell scored a game-high 19 points, shooting 8-21 from the field, and Oscar Frayer added 16 for the ‘Lopes.
The Wildcats (9-2) shot 43 percent from the field, while the Antelopes shot 35 percent. Both teams had turnover issues, but especially Arizona which finished with 19 of them.
Behind a smattering of cheers, the Antelopes were able to take an early 9-7 lead on the Wildcats on a 3-pointer by Gerard Martin with 14:12 left in the first half.
Things would quickly flip in Arizona’s favor, though, as it went on a 19-3 run capped off by a Kadeem Allen 3 to make it 26-12 with 8:39 left in the period.
Later, some nifty footwork by Chance Comanche in the post would lead to a bucket to put Arizona up 32-16 with 5:26 left — Arizona’s largest lead in the game.
GCU cut it to 32-22 after another 3 by Martin with 2:21 left in the half.
Like the Missouri game, Arizona had a difficult time closing out the half and GCU eventually cut the lead to 32-25 as the teams headed to the locker room.
The Wildcats had six turnovers and zero points in the final five minutes of the half, overshadowing the fact they shot 48 percent and held GCU to 30 percent shooting.
All seven scholarship players scored in the first half for Arizona. Alkins led the way with seven points (on eight shots), Simmons had five, and Markkanen, Comanche, and Keanu Pinder each added four.
Russell led all scorers with 11 points (on 5-13 shooting). Arizona had 12 turnovers in the first half.
The Antelopes continued to cut into Arizona’s lead in the second half as a pullup jumper by Russell in transition cut GCU’s deficit to 42-36 with 11 minutes left.
After a missed layup by Markkanen, Russell converted on the other end of the floor to make it 44-40 with roughly ten minutes to go in front of an increasingly nervous McKale Center crowd.
But Simmons would get to the line in two straight possessions and sank all four free throws to extend Arizona’s lead to 48-40 as the Wildcats’ defense buckled down.
He got the line once again — and sank both again — to make it a 50-40 Arizona lead.
Arizona got its lead back up to 12, but Frayer hit a 3 to make it a 54-45 game with six minutes to go.
The Antelopes would cut it to an eight-point game with under two minutes left, but the Wildcats were able to close it out.
Final box score
Wildcats make life difficult for Russell
Russell was averaging a staggering 25.4 points per game heading into this contest and the Wildcats were able to keep him below his season average.
Kadeem Allen, with a noticeable size advantage, did a terrific job of disrupting the 5-10 guard’s game (with some help from Simmons and Alkins).
Keeping a scorer like Russell — who scored 42 points against Louisville — to 19 points on 21 shots is a job well done for Arizona.
Based on the shooting differentials, the only reason the Antelopes were able to stay in the game in the first half was because Arizona’s kept turning the ball over.
And it has become a recurring issue for the Wildcats.
In the four games without starting point guard Parker Jackson-Cartwright, the Wildcats have committed 59 turnovers.
Before Jackson-Cartwright got injured, this Arizona team excelled at limiting turnovers, but it has not continued with Jackson-Cartwright sidelined.
Chance Comanche had four in 14 minutes. Dusan Ristic also had three.
Allen and Simmons combined for seven assists and five turnovers.
Simmons is key down the stretch
As the Wildcats’ offense stagnated in the second half, it was Simmons who would bail Arizona out.
GCU cut Arizona’s lead to 44-40, but Simmons scored six unanswered points — all at the free throw line — to give Arizona a double-digit lead past the midway point of the second half.
From there, Arizona was able to take back control of the game.
It was a return to form of sorts for Simmons. The freshman took 21 free throws in Arizona’s first two games this season, but had just nine free throw attempts in the eight games after that.
Against, GCU he took 10 and made eight of them.
He also helped slow down Russell, too.
Markkanen is mortal
Make that two rough games in a row for Lauri Markkanen — and this time it wasn’t because of foul trouble.
Markkanen finished with 11 points and eight rebounds, but was an inefficient 3-12 from the field and even missed half of his eight free throw attempts.
The Finn was also just 1-5 from 3 and missed a couple easy looks around the basket.
Is it time to be concerned about Markkanen? Probably not, but he — and Arizona — need the 7-footer to have a bounce back game against Texas A&M on Saturday.
‘Lopes fans show up
There were a good number of GCU fans in attendance, and with the ZonaZoo not in attendance (because of the academic calendar), the folks in purple were vocal and noticeable.
As some have noted, it might have been the loudest an opposing fan base has been in McKale Center for quite some time. There were even a few “Let’s go Lopes” chants during the game (and an annoying high-pitch scream whenever a Wildcat stepped to the free throw line).
All in all, it was an impressive showing by GCU’s fan base.
Terry Francona in the house
You can follow this author on Twitter at @RKelapire for more Arizona basketball coverage.