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McConnell makes the difference as Arizona edges past UNLV

T.J. McConnell gets fired up in the second half. Photo by Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

T.J. McConnell gets fired up in the second half. Photo by Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

Brandon Ashley was in foul trouble. Aaron Gordon had been elbowed in the left eye and couldn’t make a basket outside of a dunk. Nick Johnson was struggling with his outside shot.

So it was junior T.J. McConnell to the rescue.

McConnell dominated the final nine minutes of Arizona’s 63-58 victory over UNLV at McKale Center on Saturday, putting the point guard back into Point Guard U as the Cats won 63-58, ready to elevate to No. 1 in the polls.

“T.J. was tremendous,” said coach Sean Miller.

T.J. was this tremendous: 13 points, seven rebounds, six assists and three steals (with only one turnover).

“He’s in many ways the heart and soul of what we do,” Miller said.

Former Arizona guard Miles Simon, who was courtside as an analyst for ESPN2, was featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated 16 years ago, with the headline “Cool Cat.”

On Saturday afternoon, with McKale shimmering from its annual White Out crowd, McConnell was the coolest Cat on the court.

Arizona was trailing 53-52 when McConnell fed a bounce pass to Johnson along the baseline for a layup and the lead. UA was down by one again when McConnell, sneaky good, stole a backcourt pass from a napping UNLV, converting the turnover into a quick layup.

“I love it,” McConnell said of his backcourt steals. “When I do that and it’s a pivotal point of the game, it’s big for us.”

T.J. McConnell is averaging 6.8 assists per game. Photo by Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

T.J. McConnell is averaging 6.8 assists per game. Photo by Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

The Cats were, once more, down by a point when he hit an 18-foot jumper for a 58-57 lead. On Arizona’s next possession, he dribbled past his man into the lane and dished another bounce pass to the baseline to Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, who finished the back cut with a dunk.

McConnell orchestrated one more key basket. This one came with 27 seconds left, as he drove the baseline then kicked out to Ashley at the top of the key, who had an open lane to soar for a layup and a 62-58 edge.

Like a quarterback who can make all the throws, McConnell can make all the passes.

“T.J. won’t get the credit he deserves because he wasn’t a high school All-American and he played at Duquesne in Pittsburgh for a couple of years,” Miller said.

“But the way he plays the game and his ability to defend and to play offense, to make his teammates better, I wouldn’t trade him for very many players out there.”

McConnell’s numbers from the final nine minutes: Five points, three assists, three rebounds, two steals … and he also drew two fouls.

“T.J is a great leader of the team,” said center Kaleb Tarczewski.

“He always brings energy every day. … He really calms us down and runs the team like no other point guard I’ve ever played with. So, kudos to T.J.”

McConnell, with a huge side dish of Hollis-Jefferson (an Iguodala-esque nine points, seven rebounds and six assists in 28 minutes off the bench), allowed the Wildcats to exhale after a game in which UNLV was red-hot offensively in the first half and Arizona had trouble making layups in the second half.

The Rebels shot 64 percent (15 of 25) in the first half to lead 42-39.

“At halftime, my message was clear: The identity of our team is to be great on defense and rebound,” Miller said. “We had neither going, especially on the defensive end.”

Message received. Arizona tightened up, and the Rebels returned to human form. In the second half, UA limited UNLV to 28 percent shooting (7 of 25, including 0 for 8 from 3-point range and put the Rebels on the foul line only four times.

The Wildcats also had a plus-10 rebounding edge in the second half, but they failed to capitalize on their 18 offensive rebounds for the game, scoring a mere nine second-chance points. Miller said he counted about six missed layups after halftime.

“I would call them four-to-six-inch shots,” he said. “Uncontested. I’m talking about hard to miss, 90-percent type of shots. I thought we missed six of those, maybe more, in the second half.”

Probably cost McConnell a couple more assists.

McConnell, through the team’s 9-0 start, has 61 assists and 18 turnovers, an assist-to-turnover ratio of 3.39-to-1. The best a point guard did in Miller’s first four seasons at Arizona was Nic Wise, who managed 1.4 assists to every turnover in 2009-10.

Having a “true” point guard is nice.

And in McConnell’s first season of eligibility at Arizona after his transfer, it’s clear that this stage isn’t too big for him and that a close, late game is going to be McConnell time.

“I kind of live for those moments,” he said.

“I know we all do, as well. If we keep working hard like that … I think we’ll be fine.”

Or more than fine.

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