It was bound to happen at some point. The Arizona Wildcats weren’t going to win every game by 20-plus points.
On a night when Zeke Nnaji didn’t take a shot in the first half and didn’t score until more than 22 minutes into the game, the freshman forward turned it on in the second half as Arizona rallied from a pair of 10-point first-half deficit to beat South Dakota State 71-64 on Thursday night at McKale Center.
Arizona outscored the Jackrabbits (4-3) by 12 points over the final 15:02, with Nnaji getting the scoring going with a layup for his first points of the game. He’d missed a shot inside 29 seconds earlier, ending his streak of 17 consecutive made field goals, but then made his next four to finish with 12 points and six rebounds before fouling out with 3:10 left.
“Our first priority needs to be to get him the ball,” center Chase Jeter said of Nnaji, who is shooting 84.1 percent from the field. “Zeke’s a great option for us, offensively and defensively. I think he bounced back really well.”
Josh Green had 15 points and Nico Mannion added 14 for Arizona, which is 5-0 for the first time since the 2016-17 season despite making just 3 of 17 three-pointers and turning it over 15 times.
“They played against a team tonight that wasn’t very smart, and that was our team,” Arizona coach Sean Miller said. “To take quick, crazy shots, three-point shots, the way we did tonight, we were very lucky to win.”
Arizona has outscored its opponents by 145 points, the most since the 2010-11 season when they won their first five by a combined 153 points. Yet it trailed 32-29 at the half, and SDSU got its lead up to six early in the second half and were up 39-34 when the Wildcats went on a 12-0 run to take their first lead since the 16:53 mark of the first half.
“We don’t want to have a loss to wake us up,” Jeter said. “We just have to be ready for every opponent.”
Ira Lee’s transition dunk with 12:40 left caused SDSU coach Eric Henderson to call a timeout as the McKale crowd erupted, then Lee shotputted a jumper in the paint to make it 46-39 with 11:51 left.
Arizona held SDSU without a field goal for more than four and a half minutes, building a 7-point lead, before David Wingett hit a three to get the Jackrabbits within 55-51 with 5:38 left.
Arizona then went on a 6-0 run at the foul line to build a double-digit edge and lead by at least seven the rest of the way.
Mannion capped the night by posterizing a defender.
Runs of 7-0 and 9-0 gave South Dakota State a 24-14 lead with 10:31 left, the largest deficit Arizona had faced all season. The Wildcats hadn’t trailed since the final minute of the first half against Illinois on Nov. 10 and were behind for 20:33 overall on Thursday; they had only trailed for a combined 16:31 in their first four games.
“They were daring our perimeter players to shoot, and they took the bait,” Miller said, noting how Arizona was 3 of 14 from three compared to 8 of 10 from two in the field half. “We have an audition going on from our perimeter players to see who can take the most threes.”
That’s when Arizona’s two most-heralded freshmen started to put the team on their back. Mannion and Green scored nine of the Wildcats’ next 11 points, many of the highlight-reel variety, to pull them within 30-25 with 3:18 left.
Among the notable plays: Mannion breaking his defender’s ankles on a stepback, waiting for him to get back up and then drawing a foul on him as he made a three-pointer, as well as Green stripping a Jackrabbit on a baseline drive and taking it coast to coast in traffic for a layup.
Arizona ended the first half on a 9-2 run with Stone Gettings making it a three-point halftime deficit on a layup with 20 seconds left.
The Wildcats’ season-opening six-game homestand concludes Sunday night against Long Beach State, after which Arizona will play its next four on the road starting with the Wooden Legacy tournament in Anaheim, Calif. over Thanksgiving weekend.