Can’t you just picture Arizona’s Rondae Hollis-Jefferson sprinting around his dorm on Wednesday night, all hopped up on Jolt Cola and pink Starburst, running himself into a sweat in the anticipation of the Wildcats’ matchup with Oregon on Thursday night at McKale Center?
The precocious freshman has energy like a tornado has energy.
Only on Thursday night, he needed to stretch it over a career-high 34 minutes, and he did.
With Brandon Ashley sidelined for the season, Hollis-Jefferson handled the unexpected promotion into the starting lineup in stride, scoring 14 and collecting 10 rebounds in the Wildcats’ gritty 67-65 win over the Ducks.
Thrust into the limelight, Hollis-Jefferson stuck with what’s brought him success and didn’t try to do too much, but finished with career highs across the board.
“It didn’t change at all,” Hollis-Jefferson said of his preparation for the game. “If anything, I just was told I had to do a little more. Rebound a little more, get a little more points and play my game. Don’t change anything. Play my game and be a warrior.”
Give him a sword and some techno music, and you can just see him doing flips off tall buildings. The kid’s not a ninja – this late in an impressive freshman season, he’s taking no one by surprise – but he doesn’t need to be. You don’t hide a player with his energy and toughness. You can’t.
Certainly not the stat sheet, though, more important than his 14 points, which matched a career-high, and three assists and two blocks, were his double-figure rebounds.
In a game in which the Wildcats sorely missed Ashley’s leaping — and it showed, as Oregon outrebounded Arizona 40-35 —Hollis-Jefferson bounded to the occasion, his long arms corralling in the ball like a lasso.
“We knew he was going to rebound,” Oregon’s Damyean Dotson said. “We just had to put a body on him. We let him get a couple easy rebounds, easy layups and that got him going. He’s just tough.”
The toughness was on display late in the game, right when you’d expect the Energizer Bunny to fade as his minutes inched to a career high.
After dropping in a layup as the first-half expired to bring Arizona to within one at 38-37, Hollis-Jefferson tied the game at 50 with a dunk with 10 minutes 23 seconds left. Less than three minutes later, with Oregon on a mini-run, he stemmed the tide with a layup to cut the Ducks’ lead to four. After Oregon again seized control with a five-point lead with just under four minutes left, Hollis-Jefferson again toughed in a layup to trim the deficit to three with 3:12 left.
“When the chips are down, he rises to the challenge,” Miller said. “He didn’t just do it tonight, he’s been doing it the whole year. Tonight was so much about that and so little about execution.”
And therein lies the rub.
For all of the frolicking freshman’s points and rebounds, there was a defensive lapse, or a momentary collapse of concentration.
Only on Thursday, he had to play through them.
He had to push his struggles aside and stay in the flow. Soon, it will pay off. If it didn’t already.
“It’s through that trial and error that you grow,” Miller said. “A couple years ago, Nick Johnson was a freshman, and as talented as he was, he’d make mistakes.
“Rondae will grow over the next couple weeks with that opportunity.”