TUCSON, Ariz. – Freshman Jamaal Brown hid behind an ice pack most of the second half during Western’s season opener at No. 1 Arizona Saturday.
But he couldn’t shield what every person in the McKale Center could see as plain as the rough desert cactus outside.
As the Hilltopper forward squirmed and paced along the sideline, he occasionally revealed the swelling from being poked in his right eye while scrapping for a rebound in the first half.
He was later joined by junior forward Todor Pandov, who in the second half tore the medial collateral ligament, anterior cruciate ligament and meniscus in his left knee, a Western athletics official said last night. He will miss the rest of the season.
Afterward, the Toppers were in search of something to ease the pain of a 107-68 defeat.
The top-ranked Wildcats used an annoying press attack and stingy defense to dismantle Western in front of 14,584 fans.
“It got real bad, real early,” said sophomore guard Patrick
Sparks, who had just six points while committing six turnovers. “We knew going in they were going to try to dictate to us, but it was more of our mental mistakes.
“We just got beat by the No. 1 team in the nation. They’re good for a reason.”
Arizona (1-0) used a 24-2 run over a span of 4:30 to take command of the game before the first half horn. The Wildcats led 53-25 at the half.
The loss was Western’s worst since a 124-65 loss at Georgia in November 1990.
The Wildcats swiped 17 steals and forced 28 Western turnovers.?The Toppers were within 27-17 late in the first half before Ari-zona’s big run widened the gap.
“Today was a case of too much quickness and too much size at the wing spots for Western Kentucky to be able to handle,” Olson said. “Western Kentucky is a very good basketball team with a lot of experience.?We got a lot of pressure on them, and a lot of the turnovers we forced them into were the result of our size and pass deflections.”
In the weeks leading up to Saturday’s game, many Western basketball fans hailed this year’s season opener as David vs. Goliath Part II. Fans hoped for a repeat of the Toppers’ stunning 64-52 upset win over Kentucky to open last season.
But in the sequel, David apparently forgot his stones. And unfortunately, Goliath brought some boulders.
The Wildcats pressed Western (0-1) from the opening minute and used their quickness and size at the guard and forward spots. They also used the speed of their big men to force Western into making quick and often disastrous decisions as it tried to break into the front court.
“We broke their press early, but missed a lot of layups and open jumpers that allowed them to continue to be confident,” Western coach Dennis Felton said. “We weren’t making them pay.”
Arizona had apparently prepped to do its damage on the defensive end.
“Coach Olson stays on us so much about defense because that’s what wins,” Arizona freshman guard Hassan Adams said. “We had to come out today and show we’re the No. 1 team in the country.?We give 100 percent out there, and then Coach will give you a rest so you can get back out there and keep giving 100 percent.”
That effort forced the Toppers into 15 turnovers over the first 20 minutes — including five from Sparks.
Western played a more even second half, but the damage was already done.
“The two biggest factors today were their incredible offense and their press,” Felton said.? “Arizona is in another solar system than us athletically and talent-wise, and our guys clearly didn’t play with enough poise.”
And the chief force in that solar system is balance.
Arizona had seven players in double figures, led by Adams who scored 22 points in just 17 minutes of action. Player of the Year candidates Luke Walton and Jason Gardner each added 12, along with backup point guard Will Bynum.
As a team, the Wildcats shot 56 percent and 34 percent from behind the 3-point arc.
But Western had a few positives, too.
Senior forward David Boyden led Western with a career-high 26 points on 11 of 17 shooting and 4 of 7 behind the arc.?
Western shot 47 percent from the field for the game after shooting a dismal 36 percent in the first half.
“We really dug ourselves into a hole in the first half,” Boyden said. “We came out in the second half with more intelligent play and really slowed the game down.”
Aside from the obvious lopsided game, there were other things ailing the Toppers after the final buzzer.
Pandov, who was the only other Western player in double figures, left the game with 13:31 remaining. After chasing a rebound, Pandov came up yelling and grabbing his left knee.
He had to be carried to the locker room by two trainers.
Boyden said the loss of Pandov would be a huge blow to the team, which was looking to lean on Pandov’s scoring and rebounding abilities.
It could also mean a rocky first few weeks for a Western team without 7-foot-1 center Chris Marcus, whose return date from ankle surgery is still unknown.
The Toppers will try to bounce back without the pair as they open their home schedule at 7 tonight against Virginia Commonwealth in Diddle Arena.