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Free throw shooting saves Arizona in win over UTEP

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Photo courtesy Arizona Athletics

It pays to make your free throws.

The Arizona Wildcats shot 39 percent from the field and didn’t make a 3-pointer for the first time in at least 12 years, but still hung on to beat UTEP 69-61 on Saturday in McKale Center.

The Wildcats made 25 of their 28 free throw attempts, with James Akinjo leading the way with a perfect 14 for 14 mark, tying UA’s single-game record for percentage.

Arizona also outrebounded UTEP 46-25, including 18 offensive boards that yielded 11 second-chance points.

That meant even Arizona’s missed free throws paid dividends at times. A putback by Azuolas Tubelis off a Jordan Brown miss made it an 65-57 game with 5:05 left, UA’s only made field goal in the final seven minutes of regulation.

The Miners cut the deficit to 65-61 with 2:52 left, but missed their final five shots. Akinjo and Brown iced the game by making four straight free throws in the final 30 seconds.

Akinjo finished with a game-high 18 points despite shooting 2 for 11 from the field. The Wildcats also saw Bennedict Mathurin (13) and Jemarl Baker Jr. (11) score in double figures. They were the only two Wildcats to shoot above 50 percent.

Mathurin went 5 for 7, driving the ball at will. Baker shot 5 for 9, making some difficult mid-range jumpers.

Mathurin was also one of six Wildcats to grab six or more rebounds. The freshman led the team with seven.

Arizona turned the ball over 16 times, tying the season high against Eastern Washington.

UA improves to 5-0 heading into Wednesday’s matchup with Cal Baptist, what will be its sixth straight game against a mid-major.

Wearing their road blues at home for whatever reason, the Wildcats led UTEP 35-27 at the break but saw that lead dwindle quickly when UTEP opened the second half with three straight layups.

That’s when Mathurin and Akinjo took over, combining for all nine points in a 9-2 run that pushed Arizona’s lead to 51-42 with 13:33 left.

Mathurin capped that run by throwing down a baseline dunk.

UTEP answered with a 7-2 run to come within 55-52 with nine minutes left. Dalen Terry flew in for a putback and Baker found Christian Koloko for a layup underneath to extend the lead to seven.

Arizona was 0 for 9 from 3, ending a streak of 410 games with at least one made triple. The last time the Wildcats failed to hit a 3 was in January 2009 when they were 0 for 8 in a loss at Stanford.

UTEP smartly played a 3-2 zone and the Wildcats couldn’t shoot them out of it.

The Miners got off to a hot start to take a 10-8 lead, then missed nine of their next 10 shots as the Wildcats went ahead at the break. The latter part of the first half was a defensive battle, with both teams finishing the period shooting under 40 percent.

The Wildcats saw six different players score in the first half, with Baker leading the way with nine points. The redshirt junior buried two difficult high-arching mid-range shots to put the Wildcats up 33-23 with 2:08 left.

Arizona took another 10-point lead with 35 seconds left when Ira Lee threw down a vicious putback dunk, but UTEP countered with a bucket before Koloko’s jump hook clanked off rim at the buzzer.

Arizona only shot 38 percent in the first half—and 0 for 4 from 3—but made up for it by going 11 for 11 at the free throw line.

UTEP finished the night shooting 41 percent from the field, 5 for 15 from 3 and 12 for 15 from the charity stripe.