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Second half surge helps Arizona survive scare vs. Montana

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Simon Asher/Arizona Athletics

The Arizona Wildcats locked down on defense to overcame a sizable first-half deficit and some ghastly shooting woes in Tuesday’s 70-64 win over the Montana Grizzlies.

Arizona made just 33 percent of its field goal attempts and 50 percent of its free throw attempts in the first half to fall behind by six at the break.

Then it flipped the script by holding Montana to 35 percent shooting in the second half—and even taking a few charges.

Some timely 3-pointers by James Akinjo and Azuolas Tubelis helped the Wildcats (6-1) build an eight-point lead in the final five minutes. Akinjo, who went 2-9 from the line against Stanford, later iced the game by making six straight free throws.

Before that, it was a struggle for the Wildcats to hit anything. They shot just 3 for 14 from 3 and 19 for 34 from the free throw line for the game.

Arizona trailed until basically the midpoint of the second half when it finally started to find some rhythm.

A high-low connection between Tubelis and Bennedict Mathurin led to back-to-back layups and dunks for Mathurin to put Arizona up 53-49 with 8:29 left.

A hook shot by Jordan Brown pushed the lead to 55-51 with seven minutes left. Mathurin split two free throws to make it 56-51.

Brown picked up his fourth foul moments later when his elbow connected with a Montana player’s face. It was ruled a flagrant foul and the Grizzlies made both free throws to cut Arizona’s lead to 56-54.

But Akinjo answered with a 3 to restore a five-point lead and Tubelis added a corner 3 to make it a 64-56 game with 2:34 left, Arizona’s largest lead of the night.

Akinjo led the Wildcats with 18 points but needed 16 shots to do so. Brown had 15 points on 5-of-5 shooting, his first time scoring in double figures in four games.

Jemarl Baker Jr. went without a field goal in the first half, but made three shots within a two-minute span to help Arizona trim Montana’s lead to 40-39 early in the second half.

The Wildcats made a starting lineup change by replacing Christian Koloko with Tubelis, but it didn’t provide the spark they were looking for.

Arizona trailed 36-29 at the half after falling behind by as many as eight points in the period. They struggled at all three levels, shooting 30 percent from the field, 1 for 8 from 3, and 8 for 16 from the field.

Arizona tied the game at 18-all when Tubelis rolled for a dunk, but he was assessed a technical foul for slightly hanging on the rim. The Grizzlies made the resulting free throw, jumpstarting a 7-2 run that gave them a five-point cushion that they would hold the rest of the period.

Montana shot 52 percent from the field, 50 percent from 3 and 9 for 9 from the free-throw line in the first half. If not for eight turnovers, they could have extended their lead even further.

The Grizzlies finished with 19 turnovers to Arizona’s eight and lost the rebounding margin 35-33. They almost made up for it by going 20 for 22 at the free throw line.

Montana led for for 23 minutes. The Wildcats led for 12.

Arizona returns to action Monday, Dec. 28 when it hosts Colorado, a game that was originally scheduled for Dec. 2 but was postponed due to a COVID-19 case within the Buffaloes’ program.