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Jordan Brown, James Akinjo lead Arizona past Grambling State in season opener

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NCAA Basketball: Grambling State at Arizona Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

As far as season openers go, it wasn’t the best performance from a team standpoint. But considering the circumstances, just being able to play college basketball during a global pandemic was an accomplishment in itself.

The Arizona Wildcats had little trouble with Grambling State in their 2020-21 debut on Friday afternoon, rolling to a 74-55 win over the Tigers at eerily empty McKale Center.

It marked the 12th time in as many seasons the UA opened the season with a win during the Sean Miller era. And has been the case so many times in his tenure, that first game also marked the debut of a slew of new players.

Arizona’s first-year players accounted for 64 points, 33 rebounds and 16 assists, with transfers James Akinjo and Jordan Brown doing the bulk of the damage with 19 points apiece.

Akinjo, in his first game since coming over from Georgetown last winter, was 6 of 14 from the field but made 4 of 9 3-pointers, while Brown made 8 of 10 shots and added 15 rebounds after sitting out the 2019-20 campaign following his transfer from Nevada.

Brown is the fifth player under Miller to record a double-double in his UA debut, and his 15 boards are the most by a Wildcat in their first game coached by Miller.

“I’ve put on a lot of weight, a lot of good weight,” said the 6-foot-11, 235-pound Brown, who noted Friday was the first time he’d played a college game in 614 days. “I’m feeling a lot stronger, and I think it shows.”

Akinjo’s four triples were also a Miller-era best in a debut, which saw him play a game-high 38 minutes.

“James has an inner confidence that our team needs,” coach Sean Miller said.

Seattle grad transfer Terrell Brown Jr. had only two points but chipped in seven assists, the most by a Miller-coached player in his first UA game.

Among UA freshmen, Bennedict Mathurin was the top scored with 12 points, while Dalen Terry—the only freshman to start—had seven and Azuolas Tubelis added five.

Christian Koloko and Jemarl Baker Jr. were the only returning players who saw action for Arizona, with Koloko recording 7 points and 9 rebounds while Baker had 3 points, 4 rebounds and an assist but played only 16 minutes and fouled out.

Arizona’s third returner, senior Ira Lee, missed the game due to a concussion. Arizona played an eight-man rotation, with Tibet Görener and Tautvilas Tubelis as the only available scholarship players who didn’t see any action. French freshman Daniel Batcho missed the game with a knee injury.

As for the game itself, Grambling’s only lead came at 2-0 but that was followed by a 10-0 UA run. The closest the Tigers got after that was 15-12 following an 8-0 run with 11:35 left, but then the Wildcats ran off 12 of the next 14 points to lead 24-14 with 5:27 to go before halftime.

Arizona led by at double figures for the final 23-plus minutes, holding a 39-24 halftime edge. Grambling got within 57-47 with 7:03 left but no closer.

The UA shot only 38.3 percent, making 7 of 25 3s, while holding Grambling to 32.8 percent shooting and a 3-of-22 performance from the perimeter. The Wildcats outrebounded the Tigers 46-37 but committed 15 turnovers to 17 for Grambling.

“I think it was okay, but I definitely know we can get a lot better,” Akinjo said. “I think we can get better in all areas of the game.”

Added Miller: “We obviously have a long, long way to go.”

Arizona returns to action Sunday at 4 p.m. MST against UTEP at McKale, the last tuneup before Pac-12 play begins Wednesday at home against Colorado.