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Zeke Nnaji shines as Arizona routs NAU in season opener

Photo courtesy Arizona Athletics

On Monday, Sean Miller said there was “no question” Zeke Nnaji was a starter as long as the freshman was healthy enough to play.

Now we know why.

Nnaji scored 20 points in his collegiate debut, the most of any freshman in his first game during the Miller era, pacing the Wildcats to an easy 91-52 win over NAU on Wednesday night at McKale Center.

“It was finally great to get to play my first game,” Nnaji said. “Tonight just happened to be my night.”

A minor ankle injury kept 6-foot-11 forward out of last Friday’s exhibition against Chico State. Against NAU he looked in no way hobbled, making nine of 12 shots with four rebounds, an assist and a block in just 21 minutes to top the 19-point debut of Deandre Ayton in November 2017.

“I thought Zeke Nnaji was outstanding,” Miller said, comparing him to Derrick Williams because of his explosiveness. “He played tonight like he plays all the time.”

Nnaji did most of his scoring in the paint but did hit a 15-foot jumper midway through the first half. He even spotted up for a three-pointer at the top of the key in the second half but was offline.

Arizona shot 54.1 percent for the game, including 9 of 23 from three-point range. Six different Wildcats hit threes, something that only happened twice last season.

“The three-point shot has definitely been a point of emphasis,” said Cornell transfer Stone Gettings had 13 points with three threes in his first game in 18 months.

Josh Green and Dylan Smith had 10 points each, with Green adding six rebounds and two assists, while Nico Mannion had nine points, four assists and just one turnover in 33 minutes after turning it over five times against Chico State.

“We had a good team effort tonight,” Miller said. “Playing your opening game with only seven turnovers is one of the highlights.”

The Lumberjacks shot 31.5 percent and turned it over 19 times, with Arizona converting those turnovers into 27 points. The Wildcats had nine steals, three by Kentucky transfer Jemarl Baker Jr.

A 44-22 halftime lead never got smaller than that in the final 20 minutes, getting over the 30-point mark for the first time on a Max Hazzard three-pointer with 10 minutes left.

The shots weren’t falling early, though. Arizona missed eight of its first 12 attempts, including all four three-point attempts, and didn’t get into double figures until the 12:22 mark of the first half. The only Wildcat who could score early was Nnaji, who made his first four attempts with each coming in the paint.

That helped pace a 15-3 run to put Arizona up 23-11 with 7:16 left before halftime.

A Baker three—off a drive and dish from Smith—put the Wildcats up 13, then Gettings drained a transition triple off a feed from Hazzard to up the lead to 33-17 with 4:49 left in the half.

Another 11-0 run put the Wildcats up 24 in the final minute of the first half.

Arizona returns to action Sunday night against Illinois, which is 1-0 after an overtime win at home against Nicholls on Tuesday. The Fighting Illini play Friday at Grand Canyon before coming to McKale.