ANAHEIM, CA–It wasn’t always pretty but the result is all that counts as the Arizona Wildcats overcome a sluggish first half, poor shooting and foul difficulty to come back to defeat San Diego State 70-64 Thursday night at the Honda Center. The ‘Cats (33-4) outscored the Aztecs (31-5) by 10 in the second half and are back in the Elite Eight for the second time in four years. Arizona will face second-seed Wisconsin, who defeated Baylor, in the regional final Saturday evening at 5:49.
Here are five things we learned in Thursday night’s UofA win.
1. Among the Elite (Eight): The Wildcats did what championship teams do: won the close game. Arizona improved to 8-2 this season when trailing at halftime and never seem rattled playing in front of a mostly pro-SDSU crowd just 90 minutes from their campus. Junior point guard T.J. McConnell continued to be a catalyst at both ends of the floor scoring 11 points, grabbing four rebounds and coming up with one of the biggest plays of the night diving for a loose ball near mid-court which led to a Nick Johnson lay up. “You don’t get to this level without having that toughness and resolve that we have,” head coach Sean Miller said. “That, to me, was the storyline of the game. Us finding a way, being tough-minded and almost willing our way to the finish line.”
2. In the Nick of Time: Shutout in the first half and mired in arguably his worst shooting game of his Arizona career, Johnson hit a big three down the stretch and connected on all ten of his free throws, many in the closing moments, as the top-seeded ‘Cats survive and advance. The Pac-12 Player of the Year also collected eight rebounds and dished out three assists in the win. “[My teammates] give me great confidence to keep on shooting the ball and just finish the game,” he explained. “That’s what I did.” He committed only one turnover, playing 39 minutes.
3. It’s Miller Time: Saddled with unexpected issues throughout the game Miller kept the ‘Cats focused when things got rocky. He managed to navigate to a victory with three of his top players having at least four fouls (Rondae Hollis-Jefferson fouled out) and his team getting dominated inside by offensive rebounds and second-chance points in the first half. Facing one of the best defensive teams in the nation UofA committed just seven total turnovers. In the end the final score is all that matters. He’s one win away from his first Final Four as a coach.
4. You Stay Glassy, Arizona: Whatever Miller’s message was at halftime regarding the large discrepancy on the glass, the ‘Cats got the point. Although UofA was out-rebounded in the game (37-29), they neutralized Aztec guard Josh Davis (game-high 14 rebounds) who had his way inside in the opening half. Further complicating matters was Kaleb Tarczewski’s foul issues. the seven-footer finished with just one rebound in 20 minutes.
5. X-actly What We Expected: UofA had no answer for SDSU senior guard and Mountain West Player of the Year Xavier Thames who poured in a game-high 25 points and had the Aztecs on the doorstep of an upset until the closing seconds. The former Washington State Cougar made all six of his free throws and committed just one turnover in 35 minutes.