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Freshman forward Brandon Ashley revs the Wildcats in first start

Brandon Ashley

Brandon Ashley is held back by an official in a second-half altercation in which no fouls were called. Photo by Casey Sapio-US PRESSWIRE

Arizona freshman forward Brandon Ashley has been practicing well, so he earned his first start. And then he played like he practiced.

Ashley had the first double-double of the Wildcats’ season — 20 points and 10 rebounds, all in just 24 minutes — as UA moved to 3-0 on the season Monday night. Tenth-ranked Arizona dispatched Long Beach State 94-72 at McKale Center.

“He had a practice two days ago that was very similar to how he played in tonight’s game,” coach Sean Miller said.

“We want to reward players who are working hard and doing it every day. That’s not taking away anything from Grant Jerrett, but if you start one, someone has to sit down.”

Ashley set the tone early. The 6-8 power forward had a steal, two free throws, an offensive rebound and a three-point play within the first 100 seconds. He rattled in an 18-foot jumper at the 17:34 mark to give him all seven of Arizona’s points.

“He was the best player on the court tonight,” Miller said.

Said Ashley: “I just came out feeling energetic, and my teammates were looking for me. They happened to hit me in some pretty good positions to score.”

Ashley did the rest. He made all six of his shots from the field and made his first eight free throw attempts before missing his final try.

“I think the biggest thing is him being more patient on the floor,” senior wing Solomon Hill said.

“When he gets in the key, it’s kind of hard to stop him. He’s got that length to put the ball back up. he can get in between guys. That’s kind of like Derrick (Williams). When Derrick would get the ball in the low post, he kind of weaved in between guys and got to the line.

“Brandon is going to have the opportunity to put a lot of guys in foul trouble.”

Miller has the luxury of frontcourt depth for the first time in his four seasons at Arizona. The starting lineup at the two post positions will be fluid, and the minutes, for now, are being distributed with an even hand.

Starting center Kaleb Tarczewski played 19 minutes. Jerrett, who started the first two games, had 18. Angelo Chol was in for 17 minutes.

Ashley got his double-double right before he left the game for good with 6:07 left. He grabbed an offensive rebound for his 10th board, but fell to the floor as Long Beach State’s James Ennis reached in for the ball.

Tempers flared and the officials had to step up between the teams.

“I think I got caught up in my emotions a little bit toward the end of the game,” Ashley said.

There could come a day — but not until next season at the earliest — when Ashley moves to small forward. He already shows the offensive ability to put the ball on the floor and drive. He is a reluctant 3-point shooter for now — hard to think Miller would consider that a good shot at the moment — but Hill said Ashley has that kind of range in practice.

The biggest adjustment for Ashley down the road, Miller said, will be defending small forwards on the perimeter. As it is, the UA big men are learning how to guard post players who like to wander out past the arc.

Miller was displeased to give up 14 of 32 3-pointers to Long Beach State, making it clear that 3-point defense will be an emphasis as the team takes a mini-break before resuming game action on Nov. 28.

On that night against Northern Arizona, Ashley will take the court as the team’s leading scorer (13.7 points per game) and rebounder (7.7).

“He’s certainly a talented player, and the thing I admire about him is how he’s developed into a great practice player, where every day he’s the same,” Miller said. “And you can see it’s starting to show up in games.”

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