TUCSON, Ariz. – The old guys came through on a tougher-than-expected opener for 12th-ranked Arizona.
Wildcats seniors Mark Lyons, Solomon Hill and Kevin Parrom led the way in a late surge that finally put away pesky Charleston Southern 82-73 on Sunday.
Lyons, a transfer from Xavier, scored 15 of his 17 points in the second half. He also had six assists and no turnovers.
Arizona has one of the best groups of freshmen in the country, but coach Sean Miller leaned on his experience, even to the point of pushing Hill back to the power forward spot as the young Wildcats' front line struggled.
Hill scored 14, Brandon Ashley and Nick Johnson 12 apiece and Jordin Mayes 10 for the Wildcats. All of Mayes' points came in the first half.
"In a game like tonight, especially our season opener, you rely on your veterans," Arizona coach Sean Miller said. "Our veterans, whether it be Solomon or Kevin Parrom, Jordin Mayes in the first half, certainly Mark Lyons, Nick — the guys that have been through it before, they were more ready."
Arlon Harper scored 20 and Mathiang Muo 16 for Charleston Southern (0-2). Saah Nimley added 11 points and seven assists for the Buccaneers.
Arizona went 11-for-32 from 3-point range against the Charleston Southern zone defense. The smaller Buccaneers outrebounded Arizona 34-31 but committed 15 turnovers to the Wildcats' eight.
"Tonight it was so much about defense and we struggled against their offense," Miller said. "A positive is when you have 25 assists and eight turnovers. There won't be many games that you see in college basketball where that's the case. I think from an offensive perspective against a zone it was pretty tricky for a lot of young frontcourt players, we did a pretty good job."
Charleston Southern trailed just 59-57 with eight minutes to play. Hill, on the bench much of the game with foul trouble, re-entered the game and sank a 3-pointer that put Arizona up 62-57 and the Wildcats slowly pulled away from there.
Nimley's two free throws with 4:29 to play cut Arizona's lead to 69-64, then Lyons drove the baseline, scored and was fouled. He converted the three-point play to make it 72-64 with 4:06 to play. Nimley was fouled on a three-point try and made two of the free throws, but Kevin Parrom responded with a three-point play to put Arizona ahead 75-66 3:25 from the finish.
Lyons' layup and Parrom's 3-pointer gave Arizona its biggest lead at 80-66 with 1:59 to play.
Lyons was 0 for 3 shooting in the first half, 5 for 11 in the second.
"It was tough for me at first," he said, "'but I've been there, I've done it, so I just had to bounce back. My teammates, they picked me up, told me everything was OK and I kept playing."
Arizona's two big freshman starters — 7-foot Kaleb Tarczewski and 6-10 Grant Jerrett — struggled much of the game against the smaller, quicker Buccaneers. Ashley, who comes off the bench, was the best of the freshmen in the opener, a performance that included a team-high eight rebounds, two blocked shots and a steal.
"Basically I wanted to come in there with energy, make sure I was in there rebounding, playing good defense," Ashley said. "When I do that. When I rebound well and I'm talking and I'm doing good defensively, then my offensive game comes."
Charleston Southern, down 43-37 at the break, outscored the Wildcats 10-4 to start the second half, tying it at 47-47 on Cedrick Bowen's inside basket. Hill's 3-pointer put Arizona up for good, 50-47.
Ashley, one of four freshmen in the Wildcats' 10-man rotation, scored six in the final 1:34 of the first half.
Harper's two free throws gave the Buccaneers a 39-36 lead with 1:20 left in the half. Ashley's two free throws cut it to 39-38 with 1:01 to play, then after a Charleston Southern turnover, Johnson sank a 3-pointer to put Arizona up 41-39. The Wildcats' defense forced a five-second violation, and Ashley scored inside with 2.4 seconds to play to make it 43-39. He was fouled on the play but missed the free throw.
The Buccaneers, a preseason favorite in the Big South, made their first four shots to jump to an 11-4 lead and were up 25-19 when Jeremy Sexton sank a 3-pointer with 6:55 left in the half. But Arizona scored the next 10, the final eight by Mayes, to take a 29-25 lead on his 3 with 4:21 left in the half.
Coach Barclay Radebaogh said his team was improved from its season-opening loss at Charlotte two nights earlier.
"Our guys did a great job, but like I just told them in the locker room, we can't be pleased with a loss," he said. "We can be pleased with improvement but ass soon as we start becoming pleased with a loss we lose our focus. Our first goal was to win and we didn't accomplish that, but our second goal was to improve and we significantly accomplished that."