TUCSON, Ariz. (AP)—Early on, No. 9 Texas A&M was hammering Arizona when Wildcats coach Kevin O’Neill pulled Jerryd Bayless aside.
“About seven minutes into the game I said, ‘Jerryd, you have to get more aggressive,’ O’Neill said. “And he said, ‘OK.’ And he did.”
Bayless, a freshman guard, responded with a season-high 26 points, and Arizona rallied from a 20-point first-half deficit to defeat Texas A&M 78-67 on Sunday, handing the Aggies their first loss.
Arizona trailed 32-12 with 6:25 to play in the first half when Bayless asserted himself.
First he hit a 15-foot jumper. On the Wildcats’ next possession, he knocked down a 3-pointer, then made a pair of foul shots.
Those seven points sparked a 16-6 run and cut the Aggies’ lead to 40-28 at halftime. Bayless scored the first four points after intermission on a pair of free throws and a fallaway jumper as the McKale Center began to rock.
“He carried us down the stretch and really hit some big shots,” teammate Jordan Hill said.
Bayless, a Phoenix product, has led Arizona in scoring in four of his first seven college games. He also had six assists and one turnover in 37 minutes.
Bayless burned the Aggies from the perimeter—he hit 2-of-4 shots from beyond the arc—and beat them off the dribble.
“Once some of my early shots started falling, I knew it was going to be a good day,” Bayless said.
Chase Budinger added 19 points and Jordan Hill had 13 for the Wildcats (5-2), who won for only the second time in their last eight home games against major-conference opponents.
“We finally got that big win that we have been needing,” Budinger said.
Trailing 60-59 with 6 minutes to play, the Wildcats scored 12 of the next 16 points to take command. The Aggies scored one basket in the final 4:10.
“Nothing went our way in the second half, and Arizona had a lot to do with it,” Texas A&M coach Mark Turgeon said. “The first 15 minutes we were pretty good. The last 25, it was like our offense was nonexistent.”
Josh Carter scored 17 points and Joseph Jones had 13 for Texas A&M (7-1).
Turgeon said the game will be a good learning experience for his team.
“We had some young guys,” Turgeon said. “When the crowd got into it, we were not tough enough. We will be, we just were not tonight.”
The Aggies took the crowd out of the game early. The Wildcats jumped out to a quick 5-2 lead but then went more than six minutes until their next field goal. The Aggies went on a 17-1 run during that stretch to take a 19-6 lead midway through the half.
“We were on five points for a long time,” O’Neill said. “I was just happy to see us get to six.”
Arizona closed to within 40-28 at halftime, and midway through the second half, Arizona took a 51-47 lead on an 11-0 run capped by 3-pointers from Jawann McClellan and Budinger.
Meanwhile, the Wildcats turned up their defensive effort. After letting Texas A&M shoot 60 percent from the floor in the first half, Arizona limited the Aggies to 34.5 percent (10-for-29) after intermission.
“Those dudes played their butts off,” Carter said.
It was Arizona’s seventh game under O’Neill, who replaced Lute Olson when the Hall of Famer went on a personal leave of absence on Nov. 4. Olson has attended practices, but his return to the sideline is not known.
The victory came seven days after Arizona lost in overtime at then-No. 4 Kansas.
“I can’t state enough how big a win it is,” O’Neill said. “That’s a huge win for us. That would be a huge win for anybody.”
The Wildcats face another big test on Saturday, when they go to Chicago to meet Illinois.
“We got the win, so I’m very pleased with that,” Bayless said. “Now we have to get ready for Illinois. We can’t sit back and be content with this.”