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Arizona’s rally falls short in loss to St. John’s

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NCAA Basketball: St. John at Arizona Darren Yamashita-USA TODAY Sports

At 9-0 and with a holiday tournament trophy in the souvenir case, it was hard not to get excited about what this Arizona Wildcats team was capable of.

Then reality set in, and it hasn’t been pretty.

Despite rallying from down 16 in the second half to take the lead in the final 90 seconds, Arizona dropped its second straight game and third in four contests, falling 70-67 to St. John’s on Saturday night at the Chase Center in San Francisco, Calif.

Nico Mannion had a chance to win it for the Wildcats (10-3) but his running layup off the glass—similar to the one that he hit to beat Pepperdine in the Wooden Legacy on Thanksgiving—rimmed out with 6.5 seconds left. St. John’s (11-2) made two free throws on the other end with 0.2 seconds to cinch the victory.

Arizona trailed 40-26 at halftime, the produce of 10 first-half turnovers and scoring from only four players. The Wildcats quickly got the deficit into single digits but then went cold from the field and started turning the ball over again, allowing St. John’s to overcome a 1 for 10 start from the field to go up 51-36 with 13:22 left.

A Zeke Nnaji layup with 11:34 left ended a 5:14 scoring drought, and that seemed to wake up Arizona’s offense. The Wildcats made five of their next seven shots then started a parade to the free throw line with eight of the next 10 possessions resulting in foul shots.

Arizona went 14 of 16 in that run to get within 65-62 with 2:24 left, then a Mannion steal and layup made it a one-point game with 1:56 to go. That was the Wildcats’ first field goal since a Mannion jumper with 8:28 left.

Max Hazzard hit a three-pointer with 1:23 left to give Arizona its only lead at 67-66, but Red Storm junior LJ Figueroa drove to the basket with 1:03 to go to put St. John’s back up 68-67. Figueroa had 21 points but only five in the second half.

Mannion missed a three with 30 seconds left, but Josh Green got the offensive rebound and Arizona coach Sean Miller called timeout with 20.6 seconds left to set up Mannion’s potential game-winner.

Mannion had 19 points but was 6 of 15 from the field and 1 for 5 from 3. In Arizona’s three losses, he is just 12 of 49.

Nnaji had another monster game, dropping in 24 points with 11 rebounds but he had only 10 shots, making eight. Green had 11 points on 2-of-7 shooting, while Arizona’s bench was outscored 27-8.

The Wildcats shot 39.6 percent, the third time in the last four games they’ve shot below 40 percent. They were 3 of 16 from 3 and are a combined 13 of 64 from deep (20.3 percent) in their losses compared to 84 of 194 (43.3 percent) in their wins

Sloppy play and shoddy defense contributed to Arizona trailing 23-9 just over eight minutes into the game. The Wildcats turned it over six times, the same number of field goals they attempted in that time span, while St. John’s started 9 of 14 from the field.

The Red Storm missed eight of their next nine shots, though, but Arizona was only able to get as close as 29-22 on two Mannion free throws with 5:33 left. It didn’t help that he, Green and Nnaji were the only players to score until Jemarl Baker Jr. hit two foul shots with 2:09 left.

Arizona didn’t make a basket over the final 4:35, going scoreless in the last 2:09, and their 10th first-half turnover led to a scoop shot by Figueroa as time expired to match the biggest first-half deficit at 14.

The Wildcats are now off until 2020, next playing Jan. 4 at home against ASU in the Pac-12 opener.