For a team that whipped through its first NIT Season Tip-Off games with almost routine ease, the Arizona Wildcats still showed a knack for making it entertaining.
While earning a trip to New York for the NIT semifinals next week with a 87-59 win over Rhode Island tonight at McKale, the Wildcats showed off a stunning array of dunks –- alley-oop, reverse, backdoor, you name it -- that kept the late-night crowd happy.
Nick Johnson led the way with not only a number of acrobatic dunks himself but also some alley-oop passes that led to dunks and 10 rebounds. With 20 points, Johnson finished just four assists shy of a triple-double with six assists.
Brandon Ashley added 16 points and six rebounds while Aaron Gordon had 12 points and seven rebounds. Arizona shot 57.9 percent from the field overall while holding Rhode Island to 37.0, and just 16.7 percent from three-point territory.
The Wildcats also outrebounded Rhode Island 38-26.
The win moved Arizona (5-0) into an NIT Season Tip-Off semifinal game on Nov. 27 against Drexel (3-1), which won at Rutgers 70-59 earlier Tuesday to win the North bracket of the tournament.
The Wildcats have not played in the NIT at New York since 2004-05, when they beat Virginia in the semifinals and lost to Wake Forest in the championship game.
Arizona hosted two NIT games in 2008-09, but lost the second one to Alabama-Birmingham and was forced to play consolation games in Athens, Ga.
There were misses, at times tonight -- T.J. McConnell’s alley-oop in the second half to Aaron Gordon failed -- but overall the Wildcats kept connecting all night.
Up 43-19 at halftime, Arizona kept splashing in highlights during the second half. Johnson hit a three-pointer, then found Kaleb Tarczewski for a backdoor dunk on the next possession and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson then flipped in a backwards dunk with 13:55 left, giving UA a 60-30 lead.
In the first half, Arizona shook off a slow-shooting start to take a 43-19 halftime lead. The Wildcats hit just 5 of 14 field goals to start the game but finished the half at 56 percent (18 of 32), while scoring 15 points off eight Rhode Island turnovers. The Rams shot just 25 percent and were 0 of 7 from three-point range.
The Wildcats had a typically balanced first half attack, with five players scoring seven or eight points, but Johnson led the way with a triple-double pace of eight points, seven rebounds and five assists.
Gordon had eight points and four rebounds while Rondae Hollis Jefferson had seven points, including his first-ever three-pointer as a collegian.
Both teams struggled to shoot well early in the game. The Wildcats led 10-6 with 11:36 left in first half but made only 5 of 14 field goals while Rhode Island was 3 for 11. Neither team hit a three-pointer, either, until Johnson did so for UA with 10:49 left, giving the Wildcats a 13-6 lead.
Arizona took control in the late minutes of the second half, gaining a 33-14 lead with 3:57 left in the half after Johnson hit Gordon for reverse jam, then made layup after T.J. McConnell stole the ball from Rhode Island.