(AP) — Watching its opponent hold the ball, often winding the shot clock down to 5 seconds or less, Arizona needed to stay patient, at both ends of the floor.
The Wildcats likely won't face another team that slows the pace quite like Northern Arizona, but this was a good test for a young team still trying to establish an identity.
Overcoming a sluggish start and a pace that had the shot clock going off seemingly every other trip, Arizona held its composure to beat the gritty Lumberjacks 53-39 on Saturday.
"It was a hard game to evaluate because Northern Arizona obviously held the ball for 40 minutes," Arizona coach Sean Miller said. "But it was a valuable teaching lesson because sometimes when you play a team that puts (you) on defense for that long, you can uncharacteristically take chances."
The Wildcats (6-2) saw their 22-game home winning streak end the last time out at McKale Center and had their fans grumbling against after a disjointed start against the pace-killing Lumberjacks.
Arizona shook off its shakiness behind a defense-trigged run to end the first half and three 3-pointers by Josh Fogg to open the second, extending its winning streak over Northern Arizona to 28 games.
Fogg had all but two of his points in that opening stretch after missing all four of his shots in the first half. Solomon Hill continued his week-long stretch of solid games, getting 15 points, seven rebounds and three assists. Freshman Nick Johnson was steady starting at the point in the Wildcats' three-guard lineup, scoring nine points and dishing out four of Arizona's 15 assists on 19 field goals.
The game uglied up, the Wildcats found a win, which could give them a boost with a tough stretch of the schedule coming up, starting with Wednesday's road game against No. 10 Florida.
"This is what Arizona is all about, playing big games," Hill said. "I think we're all looking forward to it, especially after a game where they slowed it down like that."
Coming off a lopsided loss to BYU, Northern Arizona (2-6) used its new grind-the-clock style to put the bigger, faster Wildcats on their heels early. The Lumberjacks fell into a big hole after Arizona adjusted, then fought their way back to make it close. They never made it all the way, but certainly made Arizona work to get a win for the second straight year.
"In prep, coach emphasized that we needed to slow the game down and force Arizona to play at our tempo," said Northern Arizona's Stallon Saldivar, who had seven points and five rebounds. "We also played a new offense. I couldn't be more proud of the guys; we played well. It was a tough loss, but I think it really shows that we're getting better."
Last season, Northern Arizona gave the Wildcats all they could handle.
Despite travel woes that pushed the game's start back and had them arrive in Tucson just an hour before tipoff, the Lumberjacks stayed with Arizona until the end, thanks to Cameron Jones' 27 points. The Wildcats needed some big defensive stops and an even bigger jumper from Kevin Parrom late to pull out the 63-58 win.
A repeat performance seemed unlikely.
For one, this Northern Arizona looks nothing like the team that came into McKale Center last season.
Jones, the program's all-time leading scorer, graduated and is playing in the NBADL. The Lumberjacks also lost starting forward Shane Johannsen and several other key contributors, including guard Gabe Rogers to a shoulder injury.
Northern Arizona had a rough start to the season, opening 0-3 for the first time in 11 years and was blown out in its last game, 87-52, against BYU in Prescott Valley, Ariz., on Wednesday.
Arizona dropped from the rankings with consecutive losses to Mississippi State and San Diego State, then bounced back with a seven-point road win against New Mexico State on Tuesday. Deep and reloaded after Derrick Williams left for the NBA, the Wildcats figured to have too much firepower for Northern Arizona to keep up.
Instead, Arizona gave the Lumberjacks another chance.
Arizona didn't have a field goal until Josiah Turner hit a 3-pointer 4½ minutes in and missed eight of its first nine shots. The Wildcats played good defense early in Northern Arizona possessions, only to give up good looks late, allowing the Lumberjacks to get out to a 12-5 lead.
"We had a great start," said Colin Gruber, who had 11 points to lead Northern Arizona. "It was our plan coming in to get the game at our pace. We tried and were able to slow the game down and get them on defense, and I think that was definitely to our benefit."
This time, it didn't last.
Arizona hit a few more shots after the sluggish start, finishing 9 of 24 in the first half. The Wildcats did their best work on the defensive end, though, holding Northern Arizona without a field goal over the final 9:26 to lead 25-19.
The Lumberjacks went 6½ minutes without a field goal during the final stretch, matching the scoreless streak they had in the first half of their loss to BYU.
Arizona tried to run away with it in the second half, with Fogg hitting three 3-pointers in the first 2:37 to push the lead to 35-21. The Lumberjacks kept fighting back, trimming to lead down to eight with under 7 minutes left before the Wildcats stretched it out to grab another win against their smaller in-state rival.
"Their zone made us think a little bit and once we got used to it, we started knocking down shots," Nick Johnson said. "It's tough with them slowing it down — you have to play 35 seconds of defense — so we had to get used to that."