Those of whom that live and die by their Arizona Wildcats basketball success certainly had quite the stressful evening. In its most simplistic sense, as head coach Sean Miller put it, “we’re alive.” This game was the prime example of the old adage, “Survive and Advance.”
With a 70-64 victory over the San Diego State Aztecs, the University of Arizona is heading back to the Elite Eight for the first time since 2011.
The first 36 minutes of the game were not enjoyable for the PAC-12 Player of the Year, Nick Johnson. He was yet to score and was 0-of-10 from the field, even burying a shot from half court at the end of the first half, but it was waved off after replay revealed he had not released the ball in time. In the final four minutes, he did what elite players do at critical moments—he took over the game.
Scoring 15 points, drilling a dagger of a three pointer, and going 10-for-10 from the free throw line to salt away the Aztecs chance at an upset, may have somehow earned Johnson Player of the Game honors. Finishing the night with those 15 points in accordance with his eight rebounds, three assists and two steals, the ultimate stat sheet stuffer did just that when it mattered most.
Of course, without the contribution from super freshman Aaron Gordon, the Wildcats may not have been able to hang around as long as they did. After allowing San Diego State forward Josh Davis to have his way on the glass in the first half, the potential lottery pick shut down the Aztec forward in the second half and had a highlight dunk that will be spinning all over the Top 10 of any sports message board. Gordon finished with 15 points and seven rebounds, while shooting 7-of-9 from the field, including a three-pointer. If NBA scouts had any doubts about his ceiling entering this game, they have certainly been silenced.
As fantastic of a team effort as it was for Arizona, the best player on the floor tonight was unquestionably Xavier Thames for San Diego State. His stats were skewed by his heaves at the conclusion of the game, but the senior guard from Sacramento proved why he has been slighted as one of the premier players in the country. Were he wearing Arizona red, white and blue, Thames would be discussed as one of the nation’s top players, period. He ended his college career with a 25-point effort, but came up just short, much to the satisfaction of the Wildcats.
Despite being heavily outrebounded on the glass due to Kaleb Tarczewski’s foul trouble (Tarczewski managed not to grab a rebound on the night, an astounding stat), it was the assists column that tells the story. Miraculously, the Aztecs managed an assist on only three buckets all evening. Their 19 offensive rebounds are why they hung around for so long, but luckily for Arizona, the game went on just long enough for their one-on-one shots and putbacks to stop falling.
With the win, the #1 seeded Arizona Wildcats keep their dreams of a National Championship alive and now look ahead to Saturday night in Anaheim. The Wisconsin Badgers laid a beatdown on the Baylor Bears earlier in the evening, setting up a collision between the West region’s two highest seeded clubs.
Just before 6 PM on Saturday, the two are scheduled to tip-off on TBS with the opportunity to be a member of the Final Four on the line. In what should be a defensive battle of wits, two of the sport’s top coaches will clash as Sean Miller attempts to match wits with Bo Ryan of Wisconsin.
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