TUCSON, Ariz. (AP)—No. 17 Arizona lacked an inside presence and toughness. The Wildcats were also missing Hall of Fame coach Lute Olson.
It all added up to a shaky 76-69 victory over Northern Arizona on Tuesday night.
“It is hard not having coach (Olson) on the bench, but we have been preparing normally without him,” Arizona’s Jawann McClellan said. “Coach can’t teach toughness. He can’t give you toughness and give you heart. We have to go out there and do that ourselves. I don’t care who is coaching the team. We need to play that way.”
Olson, who has been on a personal leave of absence since Nov. 4, was replaced by assistant Kevin O’Neill in the Wildcats’ season opener.
Olson had missed only seven previous games during his 25-years as Wildcats coach. Six came after the death of his wife Bobbi during the 2000-2001 season and one was against LaSalle due to a back injury in 1994. Arizona is 5-3 without him.
With O’Neill in charge, Arizona started two freshmen and a pair of sophomores, who struggled to put Northern Arizona away until the final seconds.
Although the victory wasn’t pretty, O’Neill wasn’t complaining.
“I am from the school where a win is a win,” he said. “It beats the alternative. (But) they physically dominated our inside players in the second half.”
Chase Budinger scored 25 points and freshman guard Jerryd Bayless added 18 for the Wildcats (1-0). McClellan, the lone senior in the starting lineup, scored 15, including a pair of free throws to seal the victory with 11 seconds left.
Nate Geiser and Kyle Landy each scored 17 points for NAU (1-1).
The Wildcats took a 74-69 lead on a pair of Budinger free throws with 44 seconds left after two free throws by NAU’s Ryan McCurdy. The Lumberjacks, who trailed most of the game, closed the gap with a 13-0 run late in the second half, pulling to 66-63 with 5 minutes remaining following Zach Filzen’s three-point play.
Arizona went through a stretch where it made just 4 of 22 field goal attempts in the second half to allow the Lumberjacks to close the gap.
Arizona had led by 16 with a pair of Budinger free throws and a Nic Wise 3-pointer before Geiser hit back-to-back 3s with 7:13 remaining to keep the Lumberjacks within striking distance
The Wildcats had limited NAU with only one field goal for over eight minutes in the first half to take a 41-30 edge into halftime. But Arizona couldn’t pull away because the Lumberjacks shot 50 percent from the field after intermission.
“We battled back,” Geiser said. “I think they kind of rested a little bit in the second half. They got caught on their heels. Before you knew it we were back in the ball game and they had to wake up and play some basketball. They prevailed and hit some shots.”