Feb 27, 2014 8:36 AM by Associated Press
TUCSON - Arizona came out of its last meeting with California a bit discombobulated, hurting from its first loss and the loss of forward Brandon Ashley for the rest of the season.
It took a little while, but the Wildcats seem to have their groove back - just at the right time.
Coming off two solid road wins, No. 3 Arizona played one of its best games of the season - certainly since Ashley went down - quickly turning its rematch with Cal into an 87-59 rout Wednesday night.
Nick Johnson had 22 points after struggling against Cal the first time and Kaleb Tarczewski added 16 points for the Wildcats, who pulled out a tough win at Utah and routed Colorado last week.
"Obviously, we played very well tonight, one of our best games of the season," Arizona coach Sean Miller said. "You might make the argument that the game against Colorado and tonight's game were the best back-to-back games we've played all season."
Cal won the first meeting 60-58 on a last-second jumper by Justin Cobbs that sent the students pouring onto the court.
Arizona (26-2, 13-2 Pac-12) ran away from the Bears early in the rematch, using a big first-half run and good shooting all game to prevent the season sweep.
T.J. McConnell finished with 13 points and six assists, and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson provided a lift off the bench with 12 points and 10 rebounds. Johnson also had seven rebounds and five assists after scoring four points on 1-of-14 shooting the first game against Cal.
"It feels good right now," said McConnell, who has 22 assists and one turnover the past three games. "We're shooting the ball well and when we do that, we're tough to beat."
Cal (18-10, 9-6), struggled at times against Arizona's defensive pressure and had little chance of stopping the Wildcats at the other end to lose for the 17th time in 19 games at McKale Center.
Arizona shot 50 percent against the Bears and had a 42-25 rebounding advantage, including 15 on the offensive glass.
Cobbs led Cal with 12 points.
"They're good; you have to give credit where credit is due," Cal coach Mike Montgomery said. "They were solid and a little angry having lost to us. They're making shots now and at our place they weren't making all their shots. They're playing really well right now."
Arizona wanted a little revenge after what happened in the first meeting against Cal.
The Wildcats entered the Feb. 1 game with the No. 1 ranking and a school-record 21-game winning streak. They left Berkeley with their first loss of the season - thanks to Cobbs' stepback jumper with 0.9 seconds left - and Ashley in a walking boot after he injured his right foot going up for a rebound in the first half.
Ashley is done for the season, but Arizona has found ways to win without him, picking up three victories in four games, including Sunday's 88-61 blowout at Colorado.
The Wildcats started slowly in the rematch against Cal, opening 1 for 6 to miss more shots in the first 3 1-2 minutes than they did the entire half against Colorado (22 for 26).
Once they got rolling, the Bears couldn't keep up.
Triggered by its defense, Arizona went on a 12-2 run, building its lead to 39-23 on a series of steals and dunks.
Johnson had one dunk in transition after a steal and Aaron Gordon had another, racing off for a head-above-the-rim reverse dunk that triggered a roar inside McKale Center.
Hollis-Jefferson had a high-flying dunk on an alley-oop pass on an inbounds play, then threw down a tomahawk in transition after Johnson tracked down Cobbs to block his layup from behind at the other end.
Arizona made 18 of 36 shots to lead 44-29 at halftime. Johnson had 12 points on 5-of-8 shooting, four rebounds and three assists while leading the top of Arizona's defense with McConnell at the top.
"It's always good when everybody is hitting shots," Johnson said. "Whenever you hit a shot, it feels good and you hit a few in a row, it's great for your confidence."
The Wildcats quickly built the lead to 20 points in the second half, but Cal showed a little resiliency, going on an 11-0 run that cut Arizona's lead to 53-44.
That was as close as the Bears would get.
Arizona turned up the pressure again, McConnell hit a 3-pointer in transition and Gordon soared in for another dunk, putting the Wildcats back comfortably ahead, 70-52.
"We can't afford a 15-point deficit against a team like Arizona," Cobbs said. "We played well for a stretch and cut the lead by eight, but they executed well on offense and I give them credit."