LAHAINA, Hawaii — In a defensive battle between two undefeated college basketball powers, tournament-tested Arizona survived the challenge.
The third-ranked Wildcats claimed the EA Sports Maui Invitational championship with a gutsy 61-59 win over 15th-ranked San Diego State on Wednesday evening at the Lahaina Civic Center.
Arizona (6-0) employed consistent defensive pressure and held the Aztecs to just four field goals and 14 points through the game’s final 10 minutes — including two late, desperation 3-pointers — en route to claiming the program’s second Maui title.
San Diego State (5-1) could not overcome its opponent’s defensive effort and lost for the first time in the past 17 occurrences when it had 24 hours or less to prepare for a foe.
With the victory, Arizona claimed its third early-season “exempt” tournament in as many seasons. The Wildcats captured the 2012 Diamond Head Classic crown on Oahu and followed that triumph up by winning the 2013 NIT Season Tip-Off title.
The Wildcats limited their opponent to 75 points or fewer for the 51st consecutive game.
“Sometimes when you’re a very good defensive team, and I believe we are, it becomes harder and harder to score against you, if you do what you do well,” Arizona coach Sean Miller said. “To win the championship here at the Maui Invitational, you need great players, and you need players who rise up to the challenge. …
“I feel my team took the next step, grew up, improved, and that’s what happens when you play this type of competition.”
Arizona freshman forward Stanley Johnson scored six of his game-high 18 points on free throws down the stretch. He wound up making nine of 10 foul shots. The Wooden Award Preseason Top 50 prospect also pulled down a game-high nine rebounds.
Johnson was selected the tournament’s Most Valuable Player.
“He’ll make a pretty good NBA player in about six months,” San Diego State coach Steve Fisher said. “He’s a terrific talent that competes like crazy and helps his team win. He’s a very good player. They’ve got a lot of good players.”
The Wildcats moved ahead on the game’s 13th and final lead change as T.J. McConnell (11 points) drained a 3-pointer with 7:39 remaining, snapping a two-minute scoreless streak. The fiery point guard let his emotions fly all game, gesturing both playfully and in mocking nature at spectators and barking at teammates who committed lapses in judgment.
Sophomore sensation Rondae Hollis-Jefferson (14 points) made San Diego State pay for its 13th turnover of the game by taking the loose ball all the way for a high-flying dunk that put Arizona ahead 53-49 with 4:45 left.
“They have elite athletes at multiple spots, and they make it hard for you to score,” Fisher said. “So do we. I think a 61-59 game is indicative of that. … They hit us in the chops, and we didn’t respond like we needed to. We did respond, but that was a critical little stretch there.”
Aztecs guard Trey Kell answered with a jumper to end his team’s nearly six-minute long field goal drought, pulling San Diego State within two points of Arizona. However, the Wildcats maintained the lead throughout the game’s waning moments.
Kell and forward Winston Shepard each scored 14 points to pace the Aztecs.
“We just gotta continue to get better, continue to be aggressive,” Shepard said. “Arizona’s a good team, gotta give them a lot of credit.”
Forward Dwayne Polee II (11 points) helped San Diego State build an early lead by converting each of his first six shots — three field goals and three free throws — and racking up 10 quick points. The Aztecs also attacked the Arizona defense early and often, leading to seven team fouls and a bonus situation prior to the opening half’s 10-minute mark.
San Diego State took advantage of the free-throw opportunities, making nine of 15 attempts from the charity stripe in the opening frame. The squads combined to commit 19 personal fouls in the game’s first 17 minutes, and the Wildcats also benefitted by sinking eight free throws in nine tries during that span.
Arizona finished with 20 converted free throws in 24 attempts, while San Diego State went 13 of 24 at the line.
Behind nine first-half points
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