LAS CRUCES, N.M. - A new, smaller lineup didn't fix the Arizona Wildcats' early struggles again Tuesday, but at least this time there were other solutions.
In an 83-76 victory over New Mexico State at the Pan American Center, the Wildcats overcame early troubles in both halves by shooting well and having guards Josiah Turner and Nick Johnson basically ignore the fact that they were freshmen playing the first road game of their college careers.
"It's always hard to win on the road in college basketball, especially in places like this," UA coach Sean Miller said. "There's always teams that don't like to come and play these types of games, but one of the things you get out of coming here is you learn a lot about your team."
Among other things, Miller learned his smaller lineup without Kyryl Natyazhko at center may be a better bet in many cases and that he has two potential standout freshmen in Johnson and Turner, the well-regarded duo who played together on the Oakland Soldiers traveling team in 2010.
Johnson responded to his first start of the season - in a lineup that also shifted forward Jesse Perry to center - by scoring a season-high 19 points on 8-for-14 shooting, with a variety of breakaway dunks and three-pointers.
Turner, meanwhile, came up with a season-high 12 points, six rebounds and three assists although he had four turnovers, including two in the final 3:35 when UA nearly gave the game away despite building a 10-point second-half lead.
The Wildcats also received 12 points, six rebounds and seven assists in 31 minutes from forward Solomon Hill, who played most of the game in foul trouble.
It was Johnson and Hill, in fact, who quickly helped turn things around this time after the Wildcats stumbled to a 10-2 deficit, their fourth straight game they have struggled out of the gate.
Johnson unleashed the first of many dunks to pull UA within 12-7 with 17:09 left, and Hill brought the Wildcats to within two on a three-point play. Then it was Johnson with a layup, and the game was tied at 12.
An eight-point deficit was erased in less than three minutes.
"It was the players," said UA coach Sean Miller, who called a timeout with less than two minutes into the game in order to shake things up. "I can call a timeout, but it was the players. You have a way of settling down when you see teammates making plays. And Nick Johnson, it says a lot about his talent, his future, the way he played tonight. For his first start on the road he was terrific."
Not only does Miller say Johnson "has a maturity about him that allows him to shine," but Johnson and Turner are also surrounded by some veterans who weren't exactly intimidated by the slow start and the semi-rowdy crowd of over 7,000 at the Pan Am Center, which rarely sees a high-major opponent come to town.
The Wildcats, after all, nearly came back from a 21-4 deficit they suffered last week against San Diego State.
So 10-2 after a couple of minutes?
"We're almost used to it," Perry said. "Solomon and me look at each other like 'it's nothing.'"
It may have been a little more than that because even though UA tied the game with 15:44 left, they only were able to build a four-point lead by halftime - and the Wildcats gave that lead away 46 seconds into the second half.
UA gradually built its lead back up in the second half and went ahead by double digits when Turner hit two free throws with 7:30 left to give UA a 70-60 lead.
The Wildcats nearly gave the game away in the final minutes, with a string of turnovers that turned into a scoring drought of 3 1/2 minutes.
UA led just 79-76 entering the final minute, but Jordin Mayes and Jesse Perry each hit a pair of free throws for the final deficit. The UA made 73.7 percent of its free throws on a night when it outshot the Aggies across the board.
NMSU took four more free throws than UA and 15 more field goal attempts - thanks to 19 offensive rebounds - but made only 38.4 percent of its field goal attempts overall and was 4 of 21 on three-point shots.
UA, meanwhile, made 9 of 21 threes and shot 51.7percent overall, carefully taking advantage of NMSU's porous defense both in hitting long-range shots and slashing to the basket.
"The one thing that this game provided our team is a lot of driving opportunities, which sometimes can be our team's strength," Miller said. "It's really an open-court setting, and we thrive in that."
On StarNet: Follow the Cats through the nonconference season on Bruce Pascoe's blog at azstarnet.com/pascoe
• What: Northern Arizona at Arizona
• When: 4:30 p.m. Saturday
• TV; radio: FSAZ; 1290-AM, 107.5-FM, 990-AM (Spanish)