Few programs in college basketball are as consistent as the Arizona Wildcats, and they proved so yet again Saturday by clinching their fourth Sweet 16 berth in five years with a 69-60 victory over the Saint Mary's Gaels.
The Wildcats are the No. 2 seed in the West Region and hail from the Pac-12, but the No. 7 seed Gaels from the less-respected West Coast Conference challenged them throughout the contest before Arizona finally pulled away near the end.
The talent of Lauri Markkanen, Allonzo Trier, Dusan Ristic and Kadeem Allen ultimately broke through despite the fact the Wildcats fell behind by double digits:
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Arizona wasn't the only team with impact players on the floor. The formidable pairing of Jock Landale and Calvin Hermanson had the Gaels in position to pull an upset until late in the second half. Landale finished with 19 points and 11 rebounds, while Hermanson added 14 points.
Saint Mary's also caught the attention of Martin Rickman of Uproxx Sports for its fashion:
Had the Gaels shot better than 5-of-21 (23.8 percent) from three-point range against Arizona's stingy perimeter defense, they would have been the ones advancing to the Sweet 16.
The poor outside shooting was even more of an issue when juxtaposed against Saint Mary's start. It opened by consistently going into the paint and establishing the initial lead. Landale made his first five shots and was not intimidated, as Christopher Deak of the Daily Wildcat pointed out:
Landale and the Gaels dominated every facet of the game out of the gates and built a double-digit advantage. Saint Mary's was slashing into the lane and scoring on the blocks with ease while stifling Arizona's offense, as Jason McIntyre of the Big Lead described:
The Wildcats allayed their fans' worries when Rawle Alkins returned from injury, and they finished the half on a 15-6 run to pull within 30-29. That Saint Mary's couldn't get to the locker room with more than a one-point lead despite shooting 50 percent from the field compared to Arizona's 34.5 percent proved critical in the final outcome.
Had head coach Sean Miller known the Wildcats were going to rally back, his shirt would have been better off, as Pat Forde of Yahoo Sports noted:
Arizona seized its first lead of the contest when Ristic scored on the opening possession of the second half, which set the stage for a string of lead changes. Wildcats senior Allen wasn't ready for his career to end in such a close contest and bolstered the energy level in the open court:
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Trier built on the momentum from Allen's play and scored seven straight points to give Arizona the slightest of breathing room for the first time all game.
Even though the Wildcats had the momentum for the majority of the second half after Trier's spurt, Saint Mary's didn't go away thanks to that combination of Landale and Calvin Hermanson. The duo had no issue scoring at will for extended stretches even against the Wildcats' length.
However, Markkanen responded by moving to the perimeter and drilling a three to put Arizona up six. He then swatted Landale on the other end.
Campus Insiders responded to the critical stretch:
Saint Mary's cut it to five in the last two minutes with a Hermanson three, but it never got closer than that.
Arizona will face the No. 11 seed Xavier Musketeers in the Sweet 16. While the Musketeers are a double-digit seed, they spent time in the Associated Press Top 25 during the season and destroyed the No. 3 seed Florida State Seminoles by 25 points Saturday.
What's more, Miller coached the Musketeers from 2004-09 before coming to the Wildcats, so he knows not to overlook his next opponent.
Landale discussed the difference between the start and finish, per Lynn Worthy of the Salt Lake Tribune:
I think they started front me in the post a lot more, making it tough for me to catch. I was catching it out a lot farther, which is my fault. I have to do a better job of getting a deep catch. But, I mean, our guys were getting wide-open shots. I felt like we were moving the ball pretty well in the first half. It was nothing out of the ordinary. We're used to that stuff, but we just didn't hit shots at the clip we usually do.
Miller praised Trier's outburst in the second half after the win, per Ben White of WildcatAuthority.com: "I almost feel like the difference in the game was his offensive outburst maybe midway through the second half. He regained his confidence. And when he’s confident offensively our team is a lot better."
Alkins talked about his team's showing, per Zack Rosenblatt of the Arizona Daily Star: "We have tremendous confidence. I don't think we ever lost confidence in this game, and I felt like we were warriors."