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Freshman Bennedict Mathurin quickly becoming a star at Arizona

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NCAA Basketball: Arizona at Oregon State Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

The Arizona Wildcats figured they would need multiple players to replace the shooting and scoring of Jemarl Baker Jr., but Bennedict Mathurin did it himself on Thursday.

Making his first career start, the freshman dropped a career-high 31 points in the 98-64 win at Oregon State. That was just a bucket shy of Baker’s best night of the season, his 33-point outburst in the win over NAU.

And in Baker-like fashion, Mathurin did most of his damage at the 3-point line by draining six of his seven 3-point attempts as part of a 10 for 12 shooting night.

He also made five of six free throws, had eight rebounds, a steal and a rejection that was part of a jaw-dropping sequence. Mathurin soared for a chasedown block, then bolted back in transition where James Akinjo rewarded him by finding him for a 3 on the wing.

Mathurin jabstepped his defender before burying the triple, showing a cool confidence that you don’t often see from freshmen.

“He’s starting to really develop into a special player,” said head coach Sean Miller, who called it the play of the game. “Tonight, it wasn’t that he was just red hot. I thought he really let the game come to him. His teammates found him and I was also equally happy with his improvement defensively. As he’s out there a little bit more, I think he’s more sure of himself as a defender.”

You can’t really call it a breakout game. Mathurin has been doing this for a while. He entered Thursday as Arizona’s fourth-leading rebounder and scorer, but actually their best scorer on a per-minute basis while shooting efficiently at all three levels.

He just wasn’t playing that much.

Miller had liked how Mathurin was providing a scoring punch off the bench. However, Baker’s season-ending wrist injury yielded a perfect opportunity to give Mathurin a bigger role, and it couldn’t have worked out any better.

He opened Thursday’s game with a layup, 3 and transition dunk to give the Wildcats an early 7-0 lead that eventually ballooned into a 15-0 cushion.

“I felt like I could step up without Jemarl Baker and I just went on the court to do what I could do,” Mathurin said.

It was Mathurin’s fourth double-digit scoring night in his last five games. During that stretch he is averaging 17.4 points, 6.0 rebounds and 1.6 steals per game with a shooting line of .600/.565/.870. And that’s only in 27.4 minutes per game.

KenPom considered his stat line Thursday as the best in the country. Was it even his best of the season?

Less than two weeks ago, Mathurin had 24 points and 11 rebounds in the double overtime win at Washington State, playing crucial minutes at power forward even though he is listed at 6-foot-7, 195 pounds. His versatility makes him all the more valuable.

“He’s a great kid, he’s a tough kid,” Miller said. “He played at the NBA Academy in Mexico City, so he traveled the world, was well coached there, was well disciplined in school, and he’s got a really strong family behind him. But on top of his strong family, him being at the NBA Academy I really think sped up his development. You have to remember Benn and Dalen (Terry) are both 18, and I don’t think we’ve had somebody that young here. So he really should be a senior in high school, and I think he obviously has a very, very bright future.”

Yes, Mathurin’s physical tools are obvious. He’s a long, quick-twitch athlete who can jump out of the gym. He got plenty of air when he threw down an alley-oop in transition Thursday.

But maybe the most surprising part of his game is his 3-point shooting. He is 20 for 42 from that range, an elite 48% conversion rate.

That was only considered a developing part of his game when he was a lightly recruited four-star prospect. At least that’s what some scouting services said.

“If you just look at Benn’s shot, and Benn has a great looking shot, he’s going to be a very, very good shooter,” Miller said. “He’s at the beginning stages of it, but yes we believe in his shot. He’s proven it games. He’s proven it in the drills that we do, the way we practice just shooting. And he’s put in a lot of time with our staff. You know, early in the morning, before practice, after practice, where I think some of it is improved. Some of it is when you have a shot like his, I mean sky’s the limit. It wouldn’t surprise me if, when he leaves us, that he doesn’t go on to be a long term really good 3-point shooter.”

At this rate, that could be sooner rather than later.

“I’ve been at the gym a lot lately,” Mathurin said. “So I was working on my shot, working on things like layups and jump shots. I feel every time I’m going to the gym I’m getting more and more confident.”