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What we learned from Arizona’s win over UTEP

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Photo courtesy Arizona Athletics

The Arizona Wildcats held off the UTEP Miners 69-61 on Saturday to improve to 5-0 on the season.

Our recap can be found HERE, Head coach Sean Miller’s full postgame interview can be read/watched HERE, and below are some additional takeaways.

Playing four games in eight days caught up to Arizona

After playing two games from Nov. 25 to Nov. 27, the Wildcats had five days off before facing Eastern Washington on Dec. 4, which began a stretch of four games in eight days. A “stress point” in their schedule, Miller called it.

That’s because the Wildcats are also juggling final exams and, of course, the daily COVID-19 testing that requires them to wake up at dawn every day.

That kind of workload after an extended break finally showed Saturday when the Wildcats started slow in both halves and had a hard time putting the Miners away in the second half, allowing just as many points (34) as they scored.

“With COVID, four games in eight days, me as their coach, and then getting ready for finals, trust me, we have a day off tomorrow and it will be a good, welcome day off,” Miller said. “I’m glad for their health and well being they have that day off, and then we have chance to get right back at it and improve and prepare for Wednesday (against Cal Baptist).”

Akinjo is the alpha

Arizona has been a balanced scoring team, but when the going gets tough, James Akinjo gets going.

The junior point guard has been Arizona’s leading scorer in both games that have been decided by single digits this season (vs. Eastern Washington, vs. UTEP).

He loves those moments.

“I feel like close games is when character is built,” Akinjo said. “You find out what people are made of, and I feel tonight, when we didn’t make shots, I thought we responded real well.”

Akinjo scored 10 of Arizona’s 34 second-half points Saturday by drawing fouls in the lane and making eight key free throws, including two in the final minute that pushed a four-point lead to six.

Akinjo finished with 18 points and went 14 for 14 from the line, tying UA’s single-game percentage record. He didn’t let the frustration of a 2-for-11 shooting night get into his head.

“I’m always real comfortable and confident when I’m on floor,” he said. “Every game is different. Tonight, my team really needed me to get in the paint and get to the line.”

Akinjo’s shooting percentage is pretty low this season (.356) and Miller would like to see him be a little smarter with his shot selection, like not turning down open 3s.

Miller also said the Wildcats need to do a better job of creating looks for him, too. But when the game is on the line, there’s no doubt who’s going to have the ball in his hands.

“He’s an attacking guard,” Miller said of Akinjo. “He puts pressure on the defense. Obviously we don’t want him to go 2 for 11, he doesn’t want to go 2 for 11, but then when you go 14 for 14 from the line, get fouled seven times, have three assists, one turnover, two steals, he did some really good things on defense. He’s the engine that makes us go and I’m glad we have him.”

We still don’t know what kind of shooting team this is

After shooting 25 for 40 from 3 in its previous two games, Arizona reverted to the way it shot in its first two games—even worse, actually—by shooting 0 for 9 from 3 against UTEP. It was the first time Arizona hasn’t made a 3 since January 2009.

Jemarl Baker Jr. finally cooled off (or tired down?), missing all four of his 3s after a two-game stretch in which he shot 10 for 16.

Arizona is still making a solid 37.8 percent of its 3 this season, but you have no idea which version of the team you’re going to see on a game-to-game basis.

Free throw shooting has been the same way. Arizona has made 44 of its last 49 free throws (89.8%) over its last two games after making just 51 of 78 (65.4%) in its first three.

Thankfully the good free-throw shooting team showed up Saturday or Arizona might have lost this game. They made more free throws (25) than field goals (22).

Arizona needs more from its big men

Arizona’s quartet of big men—Jordan Brown, Azuolas Tubelis, Ira Lee and Christian Koloko—had 23 points on 20 shots against UTEP. Those are disappointing figures considering the Miners were undersized and not even doubling them.

Miller lamented the fact that Arizona could only turn 18 offensive rebounds into 11 second-chance points, saying his team missed too many looks around the basket. Per Stat Broadcast, Arizona missed five layups and a dunk.

That, Miller said, is also why the Wildcats struggled to hit 3s and only hoisted nine of them against the Miners, who played a 3-2 zone most of the night.

“You have to understand that UTEP really tried to stick with our perimeter players,” he explained. “When we got the ball in and around the basket, we had no post crowd, we had no double team. They just let our bigs go one on one with unlimited dribbles against their bigs, and we didn’t really exploit that defense. If a team does that, you’ve got to be able to score a little bit easier.”

Arizona’s top three leading scorers are now guards and wings, as Jordan Brown fell to the No. 4 spot after another quiet game. He has 11 points over his last two games and has scored in double figures once over his last three games.

Saturday was the first time this season that neither Brown nor Tubelis scored in double figures.

Christian Koloko is starting to live up to (his) expectations

On a brighter note, Koloko had a career-high nine points on six shots against UTEP, including an explosive dunk, a baby hook that accounted for Arizona’s first points, and three free throws.

He earned a trip to the stripe when he was fouled trying to dunk a lob on a defender’s head. You love to see him being aggressive like that.

And with another block Saturday, Koloko now has nine in his last three games after having zero in his first two.

“I think the first two or three games, I wasn’t really myself,” he said. “Right now I’m kind of getting back in a better shape...and just doing my job. I know the coaches trust me, so I don’t worry about those two or three games when I think we played good because I know what I’m capable of doing.”

It’s always refreshing to hear Koloko evaluate his game because he knows his role.

“My identity is like defensive stopper,” he said. “I get blocks and stop the ball and all that. I didn’t do that the first two games, so I think I’m getting back to myself.”

Mathurin got benched for his turnovers

Bennedict Mathurin had 13 points on an efficient 5-of-7 shooting. He was dangerous in transition and had some impressive finishes at the rim. He also spearheaded a dominant team rebounding effort as one of six Wildcats to finish with six or more rebounds. (He led the team with seven.)

Yet, the freshman only played five minutes in the second half because he turned the ball over on consecutive possessions near the midpoint of the period. Those giveaways led to two free throws and a dunk for the Miners, helping them trim the deficit to 53-47 with 11:08 left.

Mathurin subbed out at the 10:40 mark and never returned to the game.

“We didn’t play him a lot in the second half because his turnovers were really tough turnovers,” Miller said. “They were passes to the team in orange, catch it, go the length of the floor and score. Those turnovers against zone defenses, they almost don’t allow you to win. So one of the things he has to improve on is his dribbling, his passing, decision making. As he sees different types of defenses, he’ll improve that. Really the same for Azuolas. He’s had some early foul trouble here in his young career so far.”