TUCSON, Ariz. — T.J. McConnell insists he says it all the time, but he didn’t need to this time.
The Arizona Wildcats point guard just had to put the ball in Brandon Ashley’s hands.
“I think Brandon is unguardable,” McConnell said after No.
3 Arizona beat No. 9 Gonzaga 66-63 on Saturday. “You put a big guy on him and he’ll drive by you, and if you put a small guy on him he can post him up. That just makes our lives easier as perimeter players, and he kind of proved that [Saturday]. They put a big guy on him, we ran off ball screens and he was hitting jumpers.
“I think he’s one of the best players in college basketball.”
Hitting two 17-foot jumpers late in regulation, Ashley put up the kind of inside-outside, stretch-four performance that he showed last season before he severely injured his foot on Feb. 1 at California.
He finished with a team-high 14 points on 6-for-11 shooting in the Wildcats’ 66-63 overtime win against Gonzaga, pushing the game into overtime with three jump shots in the final three minutes of regulation.
While he had shown signs of that ability before Saturday’s game, Ashley struggled during much of Arizona’s three-game sweep through the Maui Invitational and had just seven points while fouling out against Gardner-Webb.
“I’ve definitely had my ups and downs, but my teammates have stuck with me and kept my confidence up, so at this point I’m feeling pretty confident,” Ashley said, adding that his foot is well enough now that “I don’t even think about it anymore.”
Ashley totaled five rebounds, two assists, one block and no turnovers while playing 38 minutes against Gonzaga. His 14 points were the most since he dropped 15 on Missouri in the Maui Invitational, where he often dealt with foul trouble and turnover problems.
“Brandon, in Maui, I didn’t think was as good of a player as he really is,” Arizona coach Sean Miller said. “I’m trying to tell him that, but it’s not always easy on his end to accept, ‘Wow, I’m starting my season, I’ve waited a long time to get back and I want to play better than I’m playing.’
“There’s a process for everything.”
While Ashley said his teammates and Miller helped put him in a position to be successful Saturday, as McConnell indicated, Ashley also returned the favor. In particular, Ashley made McConnell’s otherwise tough offensive afternoon better.
Ashley’s ability to stretch out the Zags’ defense helped lead to open jumpers that McConnell was able to make in the lane during overtime. And the two jumpers Ashley hit off McConnell passes turned out to be McConnell’s two assists of the day against three turnovers.
McConnell finished with 12 points on 4-for-10 shooting, moving him to 36.6 percent overall for the season so far. McConnell was 1 of 4 from three-point territory and is shooting 31.8 percent from long range overall, still down from what Miller indicates he’s capable of this season.
Gonzaga “didn’t want to leave [Ashley] and it really opened up pull-ups for T.J., and it was good to see him make those,” Miller said. “We want T.J. to be more aggressive. He doesn’t have great confidence right now on his three-point shot, but I think we have to settle in on him taking the ones that he’s supposed to and staying aggressive.
“T.J. is too good of a scorer to not get 10 points or not shoot. It puts too much pressure on our offense when he does that.”
Fortunately for Arizona, Ashley took even more pressure off Saturday.
“You saw what Brandon is really capable of,” Miller said.
“His big field goals in the second half and his overall play, he was one of our team’s best players and a big reason we won the game. And I think he’ll continue to grow and thrive as our season unfolds.”