The Arizona Wildcats are headed back to the Elite Eight for the first time since 2011 after a thrilling win over the San Diego State Aztecs in their Sweet 16 match-up. The Cats advance to take on the Wisconsin Badgers, winners of their game earlier in the day against the Baylor Bears.
Unlike the Badgers-Bears game, Arizona and SDSU put on a fast-paced, competitive game from the opening tip. For much of the first half, the Aztecs dominated the boards, out-rebounding UA 24-14, including a game-high 11 from senior Josh Davis at the break. With 20 minutes in the books, the Aztecs lead 32-28 despite 11 points from super-freshman Aaron Gordon for the Wildcats.
Arizona leading scorer Nick Johnson had a very tough first half, going 0-7 from the field and not registering a single point.
But as they often do in college basketball, the tides turned in the second-half for Arizona. After falling behind by as much as 9, the Wildcats mounted a comeback lead by T.J. McConnell and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson (and including a ridiculous Gordon one-handed slam off of a lob). The Cats made it a close game and the two powerhouse teams had a good old fashioned slug-fest in the final 20 minutes.
SDSU saw a scoring outburst from senior Xavier Thames in his final college game. Thames lead all scorers with 25 points, including 18 in the second half. Dwayne Polee picked up some scoring slack and had 13 for the Aztecs. But Davis, who had 6 points and 11 rebounds in the first half, was held scoreless in the second half of the final game of his college career and finished with 6 points and 14 boards.
With about three minutes left in the game, Johnson finally broke through, getting a fastbreak basket to give Arizona a three point lead after McConnell had finally pushed them ahead.
That was only the beginning for Johnson as he would hit a key 3-pointer to give the Wildcats a six point lead they would never relinquish. Ten free throws later, Johnson had scored 15 of the Wildcats final 17 points, and tied for team-high scoring honors despite an 0-10 start that saw him take 37 minutes to register a point. Talk about finishing with a flurry.
“I got that layup.” Johnson said, “And then Gabe made a great pass and I was wide open at the 3 point line, I just stepped in and shot the ball.”
The Aztecs had no answers for Johnson down the stretch, and his scoring decided the game down the stretch.
“Johnson is a great player, he just exploded in the second half.” said Polee, “That’s all I can really say.”
The Wildcats now head into their match-up with Wisconsin as we will see the 1 and 2-seeds out West duke it out for a Final Four berth. With Arizona pulling this one out despite Johnson’s 2-12 shooting performance, you have to like the Wildcats heading into that game.
“We’ve played 37 games now, and that was the most physical game we’ve had.” said Arizona Head Coach Sean Miller, “It took tremendous toughness and resolve.”
For SDSU and head coach Steve Fisher, their run ends just shy of an Elite Eight berth. The Arizona defense definitely played a key role in the loss.
“Gotta give credit to Arizona, one of the top defensive teams in the country.” Thames said, “We just fell short tonight.”
Then again, that’s what most people were saying about Baylor before the Badgers obliterated them. Either way, Saturday should bring us one great college basketball game.