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Freshmen lead Arizona past Illinois

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Photo courtesy Arizona Athletics

For the Arizona Wildcats to do anything this season, their three superstar freshmen are going to be at the forefront of that charge.

That was on full display Sunday night, as the trio of guards Nico Mannion and Josh Green and forward Zeke Nnaji combined for 62 points in Arizona’s 90-69 win over Illinois at McKale Center.

“Our three freshmen ... were just spectacular tonight in just their second college game,” Arizona coach Sean Miller said.

Mannion scored 23 points (on 9-of-15 shooting) with nine assists, Green had 20 points including four three-pointers and Nnaji scored 19 to follow up his 20-point performance in season opener against NAU. The trio were 25 of 40 from the field as Arizona shot 55.7 percent overall and 43.8 percent from three while averaging 1.22 points per possession in a very fast-paced game.

“We’ve actually been focusing on playing fast since we’ve got here,” Mannion said. “Getting the ball up the floor, getting into our sets quick. When we’re playing unselfish and playing fast, things go well for us.”

Added Miller: “We want to push. That’s one way we can use our depth. We’re better when we’re pushing it.”

While those offensive efforts were key to the win, so too was a collective defensive effort in the second half after a dreadful one in the opening 20 minutes. Arizona (2-0) held Illinois to 38.5 percent shooting in the second half and got nine of their 14 steals—the second-most of the Miller era—after halftime.

Illinois turned it over 22 times, leading to 20 Arizona points, and the Wildcats also had a 25-18 edge in fast-break scoring thanks to the takeaways.

“I love the way Coach Miller’s system works,” Green said. “Coach Miller is a defensive coach. We’re all in for it.”

After allowing Illinois to shoot 55.6 percent in the first half, Arizona clamped down on defense coming out of halftime to build off its 39-38 lead. The Wildcats forced three turnovers while going on a 10-3 run, with Josh Green’s third three-pointer of the game making it 49-41 with 16:45 left.

“He played with a lot of confidence,” Miller said of Green. “His three-point shooting has really improved.”

Illinois clawed back into it by going inside and drawing fouls, getting within 53-52 with 12:24 on a Kofi Cockburn dunk with 12:24 left. But Arizona Mannion found Green in the corner for his fourth triple, starting a 15-0 run to lead 68-52 with 7:51 left.

During the run Arizona forced four Illinois turnovers, including when Mannion ripped the ball away from Illinois guard Andres Feliz to start a break that ended with a dish to a driving Green and when Max Hazzard jumped a passing lane and took it the other way for a layup.

Illinois went more than six minutes without a field goal, taking only five shots during that stretch because of the miscues.

A 15-point lead at the under-8 timeout conjured up painful memories of Arizona’s late collapse to Illinois in the 2005 Elite Eight, but the Wildcats kept the edge in double digits the rest of the way. Mannion’s alley-oop to Nnaji iced the game with 3:32 left and the Wildcats up 80-64.

Illinois hit three-pointers on three of its first four possessions, its first four shots coming from the perimeter. Two were by junior point guard Trent Frazier, who had eight points in the first 3:20 of play after scoring only 12 points in the Illini’s first two games.

“They hit us with three straight threes right away,” Miller said. “They finished with five.”

Arizona trailed by seven before going on an 13-1 run, with Hazzard’s inbounds steal and score giving the Wildcats their first lead at 18-17 with 11:51 left. A Green three off a stellar dish from Mannion put Arizona up 23-18 with 10:35 left.

The Wildcats led 31-26 when two officiating decisions swung momentum in Illinois’ way. First, Feliz appeared to push off on a baseline jumper, with no whistle, then Mannion was called for an offensive foul just beyond halfcourt seven seconds later.

Mannion went to the bench with two fouls with 4:04 left, and in his initial absence Illinois went on an 8-1 run including three straight layups by sophomore guard Ayo Dosunmu to lead 36-32 with 2:21 left.

Miller called timeout to stop the run and the move worked. Arizona finished the half on a 7-2 run, with Hazzard’s three swishing with three seconds left for a 39-38 edge.

Arizona returns to action Thursday night when it hosts San Jose State.