TUCSON, Ariz. (AP) — Jamarl Baker scored his first basket in transition to get himself going, then knocked down a 3-pointer not long after that. Once the second 3 dropped, Arizona’s junior guard could not be stopped.
Baker scored 33 points and made seven 3s, sending the Wildcats to a 96-53 rout of Northern Arizona on Monday night.
“Jamarl got red hot. I thought his teammates did a good job of setting screens and recognizing he was hot,” Arizona coach Sean Miller said. “I don’t care who we played tonight or what the score was, the way he moved and shot the ball speaks for itself.”
Arizona (3-0) swarmed the Lumberjacks in their first game of the season, scoring the first 15 points on the way to building a 26-point halftime lead. The Wildcats shot 67%, went 13 for 22 from 3-point range and had 21 assists on 32 field goals.
Baker led the way.
The 6-foot-5 guard who started his career at Kentucky was expected to take on a bigger role on a roster full of new players. He got the season off to a quiet start, averaging six points while making 5 of 18 shots.
Baker played free and confidently from the opening tip against NAU, scoring 19 points to eclipse his career high by halftime. He hit his first seven 3s and finished 7 for 9 from behind the arc.
“That’s what the coaches have wanted me to do; they want me to continue to be aggressive and take my shots,” Baker said. “I think now I’m starting to get into a rhythm and will continue to grow.”
Northern Arizona had little chance against the bigger, more athletic Wildcats, particularly after COVID-19 issues shut down team activities for two weeks.
The Lumberjacks had some good moments, but fell into too big of a hole early and had no answer for Baker.
Luke Avdalovic led Northern Arizona (0-1) with 16 points and Cam Shelton added 15.
“The start couldn’t have been any worse — we were climbing from the get-go,” Northern Arizona coach Shane Burcar said. “It’s tough when you start chasing. It was a tough night for sure.”
The Wildcats and Lumberjacks had been trying to play this game for more than a month.
The original schedule had it slated for Nov. 10. The pandemic-delayed start of the season pushed it to Nov. 25. COVID-19 issues within NAU’s program caused it to be delayed yet again.
The Wildcats arrived at McKale Center in midseason form with two opening wins. The Lumberjacks had three days of practice and no games to prepare for what was already going to be a difficult challenge.
It couldn’t have started worse for NAU.
Burcar called a timeout two minutes in after Arizona scored twice on the break, including a 3-on-1, and the Wildcats raced out to a 15-0 lead.
The Lumberjacks found a bit of rhythm after the early blitz and hit a few shots.
Their biggest problem: stopping Baker.
Arizona’s junior guard confidently stroked in one shot after another, eclipsing his career high by halftime with 21 points. Baker made all eight of his shots, including five 3s, and Arizona led 53-27.
Baker didn’t cool down after the break. He hit two more 3-pointers in the first 2 1/2 minutes and capped his night with a behind-the-back move for a tough layup in traffic. He made 12 of 16 shots overall.
“We identified what they were doing and he made some shots. Credit him,” Burcar said.
Northern Arizona got off to the worst possible start against a bigger, more athletic opponent. The Lumberjacks had some good moments after the early barrage, which should help them once Big Sky Conference play starts.
Arizona played with energy and efficiency from the opening tip, never giving a small-school opponent any chance of an upset.
Jordan Brown had a superb opening game for Arizona, scoring 19 points and grabbing 15 rebounds in a win over Grambling State. The Nevada transfer wasn’t quite as productive against Eastern Washington, finishing with six points and nine rebounds.
Brown looked more like he did in the opener against NAU, making all six of his shots to finish with 17 points and 11 rebounds.
“I wasn’t as spread out as I was the previous game,” he said. “I just played my game and let the offense come to me.”
Northern Arizona hosts UC Riverside on Thursday.
Arizona hosts Cal State Bakersfield on Wednesday.
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