Following Thursday’s much-closer-than-it-should-have-been win over South Dakota State, Arizona Wildcats coach Sean Miller began his press conference with a four-minute rant in which he aired a number of grievances, including:
- Taking poor, quick shots, particularly from 3-point range
- Not getting the ball to Zeke Nnaji early on
- Not getting to the foul line enough in the first half
Based on Sunday night’s performance against Long Beach State, his players got the message.
Arizona shot 50 percent from three, Nnaji had 11 of his 21 points in the first half and the Wildcats took 16 free throws before halftime en route to a 104-67 rout of the Beach on Sunday night at McKale Center.
“I thought we had an excellent second half,” Miller said of Arizona, which outscored LBSU 66-34 over the final 20 minutes. “I felt like they wanted to do the things we talked about.”
Nico Mannion led Arizona (6-0) with 22 points and eight assists, hitting 3 of 6 threes. Reserve guards Jemarl Baker Jr. and Max Hazzard combined to go 7 of 9 from outside, with Baker chipping in seven assists and three steals, as the Wildcats were 12 of 24 from deep and shot 58.7 percent overall.
Arizona only led 38-33 at the half, an edge that should have been much larger if not for seven missed free throws and eight turnovers.
The second half was much more efficient, with shooting 64.9 percent and hitting 9 of 17 threes. A 15-2 run–capped by back-to-back threes from Baker and Mannion—put the Wildcats up 55-39 with 14:46 to go.
“We shared the ball more,” said Mannion, referring to Arizona’s 26 assists on 37 made field goals. “I think we played unselfish today.”
Less than four minutes later Arizona was up 69-43 after an 11-0 run, with strong defensive possessions leading to seemingly nonstop transition opportunities.
The Wildcats had a 34-8 edge in fast break scoring as Long Beach (2-4) turned it over 21 times, leading to 31 Wildcat points. The Beach shot 40.7 percent overall, 28.6 percent from 3 and 56.5 percent from the line.
Nnaji, who didn’t attempt a shot against South Dakota State until early in the second half, was 4 for 8 in the first half on Sunday and also got to the line twice. His 11 first-half points came despite only getting a touch on 12 of the 26 possessions he was on the floor for.
Several of those Zeke-less possessions came during a nearly four-minute span late in the first half that saw Long Beach go on a 12-2 run to lead 31-30 with 3:16 left. The Wildcats were outscored 13-3 in between Nnaji’s seventh and eighth shot of the first half.
Nnaji finished 9 of 13 from the field, which lowered his season shooting percentage to 80.7 percent.
“The sky is the limit for Zeke,” Miller said.
It’s Arizona’s first 6-0 start since the 2014-15 season. The Wildcats have outscored their opponents by 182 points so far, their highest scoring margin through six games since 1920-21. That team, which went 7-0 overall, won its first six games by 247 points.
Now comes a prolonged period away from McKale, starting Thursday night against Pepperdine at the Wooden Legacy in Anaheim, Calif. Following three games in four days there, Arizona plays Dec. 7 at Baylor before its next home game Dec. 11 against Omaha.
“Playing three games in four days is a challenge,” Miller said. “It’ll be a different feeling for our younger guys. No matter how much you think you’re ready for it, playing away from McKale for the first time is different. Although, I think for us, we expect a lot of our fans to be there, which will be helpful. And then the competition will continue to increase, so we’re aware of that. But we’ve practiced more than 30 times, we’ve played six home games, had a scrimmage, and I think all of us are ready for that next step.”