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Arizona men’s basketball uses size advantage to dominate UT-Rio Grande Valley

arizona-wildcats-basketball-mens-utrgv-vaqueos-recap-2021-azuolas-tubelis-christian-koloko Photo by Christopher Hook/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Basketball is all about exploiting mismatches. With Texas-Rio Grande Valley sporting no starters over 6-foot-6, that meant Arizona had a distinct size advantage in the frontcourt.

And boy did it make the most of that edge.

Christian Koloko and Azuolas Tubelis combined for 38 points on 13-of-16 shooting in Arizona’s 104-50 dismantling of UTRGV on Friday night at McKale Center.

Koloko had a career night, going for a career-high 18 points (on 6-of-8 shooting) and 11 rebounds for his first career double-double, tying his career high of five blocks that he set three nights earlier against NAU. Tubelis went for 20 and 9, making 7 of 8 shots, and the duo combined to make 13 of 15 free throws.

‘You can really see the progress,’ Tubelis said of Koloko. ‘He’s a better player, way stronger.’

Said coach Tommy Lloyd: “I told you guys, he’s a really good player. I think he’s a force, he impacts the game.”

Their work helped Arizona (2-0) to a massive 54-25 rebounding edge on the Vaqueros (1-1), outscoring them 46-16 in the paint. The UA shot 60.7 percent overall and were 11 of 27 from 3-point range as six Wildcats had at least one triple.

‘We go into every game trying to get more rebounds than the other team,” said Kolko, whose 11 rebounds tied a career best.

Justin Kier had three 3s, finishing with 13 points, Bennedict Mathurin hit two 2s and had 13 and Kerr Kriisa was 3 of 6 from deep for 9 points. Oumar Ballo added 12 points and six rebounds in 14 minutes as the UA scored its most points since a 104-67 win over Long Beach State in November 2019.

Arizona held UTRGV to 22.4 percent shooting, its best defensive effort since holding NAU to 21.4 percent shooting in December 2015, and converted 13 Vaquero turnovers into 23 points.

The UA once again shared the ball well, assisting on 25 of 34 made field goals after doing so on 25 of 28 against NAU, the first time it has had back-to-back games with 25 or more assists since 2004. But it also turned it over 18 times, triple its tally in the season opener.

“I’m not happy with those,” Lloyd said.

Arizona jumped out to an 18-2 lead, forcing UTRGV coach Matt Figger to call timeout less than 90 seconds in after back-to-back transition baskets by Tubelis, who was personally outscoring the Vaqueros until the 4:30 mark of the first half.

‘It’s a good sign if that happens,’ Lloyd said of forcing the early timeout.

Tubelis’ 3-point play, which came six seconds after Koloko started the break with a swat, made it 33-11 with 5:59 left.

The mismatch was so pronounced that UTRGV didn’t get a live-ball rebound for the first seven-plus minutes. The only thing that kept the blowout being worse was Arizona’s turnover issues, though UTRGV only managed to get nine points off the 12 first-half giveaways.

The UA led 49-24 at the half and the margin never got below 22 after that as UTRGV’s longest scoring run was five points. The Vaqueros did not make consecutive baskets in the second half.

Arizona is back in action Tuesday at home against North Dakota State. The Bison (2-0) won 60-57 at Cal Poly on Friday.