BERKELEY, Calif. (AP) — Arizona's Zeke Nnaji is getting much more comfortable handling double-teams than he was earlier in the season and proved it repeatedly against California when he tried to set up in the paint.
Wildcats coach Sean Miller was equally impressed with how his young squad played in its first game after getting knocked out of the Top 25 for the second time in three weeks.
Nnaji had 21 points and five rebounds, and Arizona overcame a sluggish game offensively to beat California 68-52 on Thursday night.
Dylan Smith added 14 points and Nico Mannion had 10 points and five assists to help the Wildcats (17-7, 7-4 Pac-12) bounce back from a home loss to UCLA.
“As oftentimes has been the case with our group, we’ve learned through a lot of different experiences. When we’ve failed we’ve grown a little bit,” Miller said. “We handled ourselves overall better tonight in terms of playing against a style that was a little bit slower. We came in with a lot of purpose.”
Nnaji, the centerpiece of Arizona’s talented freshman trio of starters, provided much of it. He shot 8 of 13, drew nine fouls and had two assists.
“I think I’m getting used to the double-teams more and more,” Nnaji said. “We work on that every day in practice, passing out of the double, how to handle that. All that work’s starting to pay off.”
Nnaji said he felt the Wildcats got complacent after beating Washington and Washington State before blowing a big lead against USC then getting run over by UCLA.
“This week in practice we were very hungry and we wanted to prove to everybody that we can be one of the best teams when we play at our best,” Nnaji said.
Nnaji dominated on a night when Arizona’s offense sputtered. The Wildcats committed only 10 turnovers but most were unforced errors. Mannion twice threw the ball into the stands.
Arizona also struggled beyond the arc where it was 3 of 13 until Smith made back-to-back shots and Max Hazzard added a third. That capped a 15-4 run that put Arizona ahead 62-43.
Matt Bradley had 19 points and eight rebounds for California (10-4, 4-7). The Golden Bears have lost three straight and four of six.
“Once they got in the bonus that early in the second half that makes it hard for us because the style that gives us a chance to win, we couldn't keep it that way,” Cal coach Mark Fox said. “He's whipped a lot of tails this year and he whipped ours tonight.”
The Wildcats led comfortably most of the first half then got a big defensive play before halftime when Jemarl Baker Jr. blocked Paris Austin’s 3-point try.
Arizona: At times, it looked like the Wildcats were still suffering a hangover from Saturday’s stinging loss to the Bruins but they got themselves together enough to pull away late. That made it eight straight over California. The 27 points in the first half were the third-fewest scored by Arizona this season.
California: The Bears had a six-minute scoreless stretch in the first half and a four-minute drought in the second. That was too much to overcome for a team still struggling to find a secondary scorer to complement Bradley. Cal showed more patience offensively but couldn’t get enough of their shots to fall.
Arizona: Play at Stanford on Saturday.
California: Host to Arizona State on Sunday.
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