Aaron Gordon is the kind of kid who listens. Who takes coaching. Who isn’t too big for his freshman britches despite all his crazy athletic skills and the promise of a future paved with NBA gold.
So, when coach Sean Miller talked to him at halftime, reminding Gordon of who he was as a player and challenging him to do better, Gordon listened.
And then the 6-9 forward performed.
Gordon had a double-double just in the second half of Saturday’s game at Washington — 12 points and 10 rebounds after the break — to help the top-ranked Wildcats rally past the Huskies 71-62 at McKale Center.
“It’s something I pride myself on,” Gordon said of his rebounding.
“Going into halftime I had one rebound and I was mad about that. And then in the second half I got 10 rebounds. My mindset just kind of changed. I just need to have that mindset going into the game next time.”
The other half of the story for Arizona was Nick Johnson, who scored 24 points, and those two players seemed to be in the mix of every key stretch for the Cats, who trailed by two at halftime and about midway into the second half.
Gordon fueled a key 67-second stretch.
He made a layup at the 10:26 mark, slammed home a Kaleb Tarczewski missed shot at 9:54 and fed Johnson a bounce pass in transition for another dunk with 9:19 to go, firing up the McKale crowd.
“It was great. There’s no better place when we’re going on a run and we finish it out with a few dunks,” Johnson said.
“In the timeout after that, Coach was saying, ‘It’s not over. We gotta keep on getting stops and keep on getting out on the break.’”
Arizona, which improved to 15-0, led 55-52 at that point and never trailed again, although it had to repeatedly stiff-arm the pesky Huskies over the next several minutes.
“That’s what good teams do. They battle through adversity,” Johnson said.
And that’s what good players do.
Gordon finished with 18 points and 12 rebounds, hitting 8 of 11 shots from the field. Not one made basket came from outside of about 5 feet as he did what he was supposed to do — establish inside dominance against a smaller front line.
“We did challenge him at halftime,” Miller said.
“And that’s what you hope happens — you go from one rebound to 10. To me, every basket that he scored and every rebound that he got were all big. He played like a great player in today’s second half. It was great to see him respond.”
Arizona responded after a first half in which allowed Washington to shoot 55.6 percent and was out-rebounded by seven. Those areas — defense and work on the boards — have been the twin pillars of UA’s success.
“We can wear you down with our size and with our defense,” Miller said.
Sometimes, Gordon, Tarczewski and Brandon Ashley are all playing well at the same time. Other times, not so much. Tarczewski and Ashley combined to hit 4 of 15 shots Saturday and pull down 11 rebounds — merely matching Gordon’s total.
“It took me a little bit to adjust in preseason and now I’ve understood the aspects of college basketball and what it takes — how hard you have to play and how physical it is,” Gordon said. “Now, it’s just like any other basketball game to me.”
Johnson and Gordon had more big moments late in the game. Johnson had a drive-and-dunk that gave Arizona a 62-58 lead with 3:20 to go. Gordon had a tip-in on the next possession for a six-point lead.
The Cats ended up with an 11-rebound edge in the second half.
“We had to try to keep them off the glass and I think we did a good job at that in the first half,” said Washington guard C.J. Wilcox, who scored 20 points. “In the second half, they were relentless, and that’s one of the main reasons why they are No. 1 in the country.”
Gordon is averaging 12.4 points and 8.0 rebounds per game. Miller hasn’t found the magic words to cure Gordon’s free-throw woes (44.9 percent, 31 of 69) but “go hit the boards” works pretty well with a kid who listens.
“Aaron Gordon never gets at anyone but himself,” Miller said.
“I’ve never seen a kid like him. He doesn’t point fingers. As a matter of fact, sometimes he might even be too hard on himself. What you watched him do today, it seems like he does it all the time. He can really turn it around because he’s about the right things.”