The lopsided box scores might suggest that the Arizona Wildcats’ first two NIT Season Tip-Off games were routine, maybe even boring.
Clearly, you had to be there. Or at least watch the highlights.
While earning a trip to New York for the NIT semifinals next week with a 87-59 win over Rhode Island on Tuesday night 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.
It was a near-repeat of their first game, a 50-point blowout of Fairleigh Dickinson on Monday, though the mid-major Rams were gritty and competitive in the second half despite all that dunking on top of them.
Basically, except for a bit of defensive sputtering in the second half, Arizona just kept going all-out, all the time.
“As older guys, we embrace that,” said guard Nick Johnson, who led the Wildcats with 20 points and 10 rebounds. “We’re a top-five team. Top-five teams come out and do what they’re supposed to do — come out in the halfcourt or whatever and execute.”
Johnson not only threw down 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.
He said his favorite was a second-half assist to Kaleb Tarczewski, who dunked from the baseline.
Johnson admitted, somewhat bashfully, that he probably didn’t deserve full credit for all those boards, however.
“I know Brandon (Ashley) was mad that I stole a couple of them,” Johnson said.
Ashley still managed to collect 16 points and six rebounds while Aaron Gordon had 12 points and seven rebounds, and Miller, for one, appreciated Ashley no matter what the stats said.
“You could make the argument that he’s our most important player” at this point, Miller said.
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 out-rebounded Rhode Island 38-26 and outscored the Rams 48-28 in the paint, though Miller found himself disappointed that the Wildcats weren’t quite as sharp in the second half.
Rhode Island shot 25 percent in the first half but doubled that percentage after halftime.
“Defensively, we were excellent in the first half, almost dominant,” Miller said. “But in the second half, we did not play as good defensively.
“Tonight we had a big lead (and slipped) – if you’re playing in a conference game or one of these games coming up, if you’re up 10 and you do that defensively — and the game’s tied up.”
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 Tuesday night — 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.
Heading into halftime, Johnson was fully aware that he had a shot at the triple-double.
“I saw that,” Johnson said. “Who wouldn’t want a triple-double? But it wasn’t tonight. We’ll see.”
Gordon had eight points and four rebounds while 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 McConnell stole the ball from Rhode Island.