There was a moment in Arizona’s 87-59 win over Cal on Wednesday night at McKale Center when the Wildcats’ present and the future collided.
More than a moment, really.
First, Elliott Pitts hit a three-pointer that got the crowd on its feet with 14 minutes, 10 seconds left in the first half.
Aaron Gordon then followed with a beautiful back-down of his defender and a mini-hook shot.
A few minutes later, after grabbing back-to-back rebounds, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson threw down a beautiful dunk to give Arizona a 15-14 lead.
Three freshmen. Three plays. Three reminders that the Wildcats’ youth movement is in full effect.
“All those guys are improving, getting better,” Arizona head coach Sean Miller said. “ “They’ve been consistent all year. Lets face it — as far back as November, they’ve played some really good basketball.”
Cal coach Mike Montgomery got a first-hand look. He said after the game that the Bears hoped to limit the Wildcats’ transition, but Gordon’s 13 points and Hollis-Jefferson’s 12, to go along with 10 rebounds, didn’t help.
“Gordon is very good, and played great against Colorado (getting a season-high 23 points),” Montgomery said. “Jefferson got free a lot coming down the middle. Our objective was to keep them out of transition, but obviously we didn’t do that.”
To be sure, there are still some growing pains for Arizona’s trio of tykes.
Against Colorado last Saturday, Hollis-Jefferson managed just four points and two rebounds because of foul trouble, which limited him to 15 minutes on the court.
On Wednesday, he showed both sides of the freshman coin in about a minute of game action.
With 5:10 left in the game, Hollis-Jefferson slammed home a phenomenal two-handed dunk to put the Wildcats up by 23. Less than a minute later, with the shot clock dwindling, he attempted an off-balance, leaning three-pointer that careened off the rim, prompting a fan to yell, “What was that?!”
Soon after, he almost had the ball stolen, then nearly threw the ball away.
Gordon has also had his fair share of freshman foibles, mainly at the free-throw line. He did have his second-best game of the year from the line on Wednesday, though, hitting 5 of 6.
“I know you don’t always believe me when I tell you better free-throw shooter in practice, but he’s better,” Miller said. “He’s far from the percentage he has. I hope a game like this can give him some confidence.”
Confidence doesn’t seem to be lacking in these youngsters.
They smile like they’ve just found a dollar on the street, and the fans shower them with love.
One fan held a “Rondae All Day” poster on Wednesday; another photoshopped Gordon’s head onto a plane — “Air Gordon.”
Even Pitts has gotten in on the fun lately.
Pitts, whose minutes have increased significantly since Brandon Ashley’s injury, has remained a steady outside shooter, hitting 39 percent from behind the arc this season. And he’s proven to be less of a defensive liability than earlier this year, even as his time playing time has gone up, accounting for half his campaign’s court time in just the last six games.
The lack of playing time hasn’t seemed to hurt him, physically or emotionally. Neither has Miller’s yanking of Hollis-Jefferson’s starting spot in Ashley’s absence, and Gordon hasn’t folded because of his free-throw woes.
“I don’t know if I’ve dealt with a group of freshmen who are as mature and unselfish as these guys are,” Miller said. “They have a great attitude. That’s one of the real great qualities of this year’s team. Our newcomers came in ready to blend in.”
Miller knows the honeymoon won’t last forever, and that the bright lights and big paychecks of professional ball beckon.
“I don’t know how much longer were gonna have some of these guys,” he said. “This isn’t Sean Elliott, where we love watching them for four years.”