At one point late in the first half, Long Beach State had four baskets. Arizona’s Gabe York had four 3-pointers.
That was one way to measure the domination that Arizona fans had expected, but didn’t get, from the sixth-ranked Wildcats in the opener against Cal Poly on Friday.
This was the fun-and-gun Cats, overpowering defensively and stuffing the highlights with alley-oop dunks, burying the 49ers with a 44-18 first half en route to a 91-57 victory at McKale Center on Monday night.
“Our team was ready to play,” said coach Sean Miller. “I felt like we improved from Game 1 to Game 2 in a number of different areas.”
The game started with a lob from T.J. McConnell to Kaleb Tarczewski for an easy two, and the half ended with an Aaron Gordon tip-in. In between, Arizona asserted its size and length, harassing LBSU all over the court. If McKay LaSalle hadn’t hit a 3-pointer with 27 seconds left, the 49ers would have set an arena record for worst shooting in a half.
As it was, LBSU made 5 of 35 shots (14.3 percent), leaving the 1988 Cal team with the honor of having the worst-shooting half at McKale (4 of 29, 13.8 percent).
Junior guard Nick Johnson, asked about the shut-down defense, shrugged. That results were top-shelf, but he sees better in practice.
“There have been some practices where we definitely have done a lot better,” Johnson said. “They got a lot of offensive rebounds in the first half. We’re working on every aspect to get better.”
Miller wants the identity of this team to be defense. He wants them from all his teams, really, but this one is equipped to the max to deliver. Arizona held Cal Poly to 37.1 percent shooting Friday night. Long Beach State clawed its way up to 27.0 percent for the game.
Brandon Ashley led Arizona in scoring with 16 points, although he fouled out with 5:54 to play. Aaron Gordon had his second double-double in as many games — 14 points, 10 rebounds. Tarczewski nearly matched him with nine points and 10 boards.
McConnell had eight assists. Johnson scored 14. York finished with 14 points, six assists and no turnovers, throwing multiple alley-oops to Johnson. York was 4 of 7 from behind the arc, which told only part of his story.
“I don’t care about Gabe’s shooting; I care about his defense,” Johnson said.
“He’s been great on defense. He’s been listening to what the coaches say and taking criticism and getting better. He’s gotten tremendously better.”
With all the balance on offense, gaudy stats on defense and competing story lines, Miller suggested that the true headline through two games has been York, a sophomore guard who was mostly on the outside of the playing rotation last season.
He has a chance to be what no other Wildcat can be — a prolific 3-pointer ace.
“He’s worked extremely hard this offseason. I think it’s very noticeable,” Miller said.
“It’s not just in the way he can shoot the basketball, which he has always been able to do. For him to have six assists and no turnovers and two steals, shooting the ball like he did in the first half and watching how he played the other night in our opener, I’m really excited about what he can bring to the table for the entire year.
“He’s a very pivotal player for us off the bench. And it’s great to see him play with the type of confidence he’s playing with. … I’m happy for him and I’m also happy for us.”
The second half was a lot of going through the motions, but was notable for a few reasons.
Kansas transfer big man Zach Peters made his UA debut, putting behind a history of concussion problems. Junior post Matt Korcheck, a Sabino High grad and transfer from Cochise College, put his first points in the scorebook with a dunk with 4:22 left. Freshman walk-on Trey Mason, son of ex-Cat Harvey Mason, hit a 3-pointer in mop-up time.
The competition becomes more unforgiving Thursday night at San Diego State, where the test will be if Arizona can continue to spin defense and rebounding into transition gold. Arizona at its best.
“We’re good in the open court,” Miller said.
“We have to keep it that way. The way we get in the open court is by being a great defensive team. We had a number of breakdowns, but all in all, it’s hard to argue with our defensive numbers tonight.”