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Arizona eases past UTEP in final tune-up before Maui Invitational

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Brandon Williams and Brandon Randolph combined for 42 points. The Wildcats are 3-0.

Photo by Simon Asher

Brandon Williams says college basketball is much different from the high school game. The pace is quicker, the players are better.

He is adjusting just fine.

The freshman scored a career-high 21 points and still has not turned the ball over this season, as the Arizona Wildcats eased past the UTEP Miners 79-46 on Wednesday to improve to 3-0 heading into the Maui Invitational.

“It’s not like high school where you have to do everything,” Williams said. “It’s easy to adapt.”

Williams was 6 for 12 from the field, scoring 15 points in the first half. He flung a no-look pass to Ira Lee for an easy slam that boosted his assist-to-turnover ratio to 14 to 0 on the season.

“That’s astonishing because the way he plays isn’t safe,” said UA coach Sean Miller. “He makes plays at the basket, he pushes the ball in transition and I think it says a lot about his intelligence as a player. ... He doesn’t force things. He takes what the defense gives and sometimes you don’t see a guard get that until they’re long gone from college. He almost has that right now, and he’s a big reason why we’ve been able to play with single digit turnovers.”

Brandon Randolph also dropped 21 points, scoring 12 in the second half. He was 7 for 12 from the field.

“It’s really fun to play with him,” Randolph said of Williams. “He’s a smart freshman and he’s going to get better as the season goes.”

Chase Jeter supplemented the Brandons with 15 points on nine shots and was active defensively. The big man swatted two UTEP shots and drew a charge on a 2-on-1. One of those blocks led to a layup for Randolph on the other end.

“That’s all Coach Miller wants us to do is play hard on defense and let it transition over to offense,” Randolph said.

Arizona held UTEP to 33 percent shooting and the Miners’ 46 points were the fewest UA has allowed in a game since 2016.

Miller continues to be pleased with his team’s effort on defense.

“We’re far from perfect, but I like our hustle. I think evidence lies in the number of charges we attempted to take, some of which were called, and a number of shot blocks and hard plays on the ball,” he said. “And I think for us this year that’s the direction we have to go and we’re gonna have to be an excellent defensive team. So we’re working very hard to get better in that area, and I think we’ve made some strides in the last couple of weeks.”

The Wildcats shot 49 percent as a team and 4 for 16 from the 3-point line. Dylan Smith could not continue his hot streak, missing both 3s he attempted.

Arizona made six of its first nine shots of the ballgame, but cooled down considerably, at one point missing nine of 10, which allowed UTEP to trim the lead to 23-18 with 4:13 left in the first half.

But Williams drilled back-to-back 3s, and later hit a pull-up to put Arizona up 34-23 at the break, its largest lead at the time.

“I’m just trying to make the right play and take what the defense gives me, whether it’s me scoring or getting the assist,” he said.

UTEP briefly cut the deficit to single digits early in the second half, but Arizona responded with an 8-0 run to extinguish the threat.

“We give great effort, we can score the ball, we take pride in defense, and I just know we have to get better in rebounding both offensively and defensively,” Randolph said.

A small UTEP team outboarded Arizona, 36-35 — a recurring problem that is a major concern since the Wildcats will be facing bigger and better teams in Hawaii next week.

“We have to be able to pressure the other team and be smart with our pressure,” Miller said. “When a shot goes up, we can’t be dismantled on the defensive glass. We can’t let these teams get second shots and put fouls on our team because we can’t rebound. Our lack of size, we have to make up for it by having five guys determined and blocking out, and guys who don’t start coming in the game really contributing in that area.”

Lee had a team-high seven boards. Ryan Luther hauled in six, but was limited to three points after scoring 17 against Cal Poly on Sunday. The senior only took two shots.

“We have to run more things for Ryan Luther because he’s almost unselfish to a fault,” Miller said. “He’s a great teammate, but he’s a very good shooter and he can go inside as well. But for him to play 24 minutes and take two shots, we have to do a better job as coaches to put him in a position to get more looks than that.”

The Wildcats had trouble at the free-throw line, going 17 for 29, perhaps distracted by a UTEP fan who screeched every time they stepped up to the stripe.

That young girl was probably the best defense Arizona faced in its three blowout wins, but that will change Monday when the Wildcats take on the Iowa State Cyclones to open the Maui Invitational.

“I think all eight teams that travel to Maui will certainly learn their strengths and weaknesses even more,” Miller said. “And you’re getting young players a lot of great experience away from home. But the competition is the highest level that I’ve seen in a tournament.”

And Miller is unsure how his team will handle itself in its first real test of the season.

“I mean you really don’t know until you’re there,” he said. “Sometimes it’ll bring out the best in a player and a team and sometimes it could really be a struggle. I mean, when you’re playing against great programs on a neutral court, a lot of eyes watching the games, the kind of pressure can take you to places that you don’t want to go, and that’s part of what I think all of us try to do in those tournaments is don’t beat yourself. Whatever you’re good at, make sure you show up.

“We’ve been really good at taking care of the ball and it’ll be interesting to see at the end of that tournament if that holds. If it does, that’s a great sign. We’re worried about our rebounding, it’ll be interesting to see if we have more confidence when that tournament ends in that area. But until you play the games, you don’t really know.”