LOS ANGELES—Before Thursday night, the best birthday gift Arizona point guard T.J. McConnell ever received was a bike, given to him the day he turned 8. Ten years later, he played for the Pennsylvania state championship as a senior at Chartiers Valley High two days before he turned 18, a present soured by loss.
“Incredible to be there,” McConnell said, but he remembers the heartache most. Arizona coach Sean Miller, a Pennsylvania native like McConnell, joked that surely at some point in McConnell’s childhood, someone gave him a Steelers football helmet, so he could run around his backyard and pretend he was former running back standout Franco Harris.
McConnell could not remember every present he opened on every birthday but on Wednesday, when he turned 23, he knew this much: All the wanted, the only gift that would make him happy, was a Sweet 16 win.
That it came wrapped in ugly paper, featuring disjointed offense and too many turnovers, did not matter.
McConnell got his birthday wish Thursday night at Staples Center in front of 18,809 as the Wildcats (34-3) gritted out a 68-60 win over Xavier, earning a spot in the Elite 8 and a regional rematch with top-seeded Wisconsin. It was a "treat yo self" kind of birthday, because the victory came courtesy of McConnell himself, who finished with 17 points, seven rebounds, five assists, one steal and two back-breaking shots. And because it’s his day, his first 20 minutes (2 for 7 from the field, three turnovers) are forgivable.
“In the first half you could have said I was practically playing for Xavier how many times I passed them the ball,” McConnell said rolling his eyes. “I couldn't hit water if I fell out of a boat.”
Xavier’s 1-3-1 matchup zone defense does that to teams. But McConnell found a rhythm, much to the dismay of Musketeers coach Chris Mack, who buried his head in his hands while sitting at the postgame podium, recalling McConnell’s ninth and 10th points.
“We got up four at one time in the second half and T.J. shot a little pull-up on the right side on the lane, missed it, and I thought that was, again—I don't know,” Mack groaned. “I just live and die every play, so maybe it wasn't as big of a play as I thought. But he got his own rebound and put it back in. Those are backbreakers.”
And as it turns out, the first of two.
In a bizarre game where McConnell was turnover prone and Arizona was vulnerable defensively—Xavier shot 46% in the first half, and controlled the lane all night, outscoring the Wildcats 34-18 in the paint—the Wildcats somehow wrested control late in the second half. Arizona started to trap Xavier big man Matt Stainbrook (17 points, 10 rebounds) and the Musketeers (23-14) got flustered, rushing shots and throwing away the ball. Arizona hit four free throws to pull ahead 55-53, where it stayed for the rest of the way (the game itself featured eight ties and six lead changes). But it was after Xavier’s Davis Dee went 1 for 2 at the line that McConnell hit his biggest shot of the night.
Waving off a screen from Brandon Ashley, McConnell pulled from long distance, his previous five misses from there forgotten. He nailed the one Arizona needed most, pulling the Wildcats up 58-54 with 4:18 to go. It gave the Wildcats breathing room, and Arizona hit all eight of its free throws in the final 3:36 to seal the win.
McConnell said that despite an “abysmal” shooting performance, he liked when he looked up and realized Xavier was playing off him. Trusting his teammates and coaches, who have praised McConnell since they arrived in LA, pointing to his leadership as the reason for this season’s success, he took their advice to keep shooting, and let it go.
“He's done that a number of times over the last two years where he doesn't have a very good night shooting the ball, but when he takes the big one, it seems to go in,” Miller said. Ashley did not even recall being waved away, but said he has full confidence in McConnell and whatever decision he makes on the floor.
The celebration, of course, will have to wait until Saturday, when the Wildcats hope to have booked their ticket to Indianapolis and the Final Four. Arizona hasn’t gone dancing that deep since 2001, when it finished as runner-up to Duke. This group remembers well the agony of last year, when now-departed Nick Johnson’s game-winning attempt was late (he missed) and Wisconsin celebrated a 64-63 overtime victory over Arizona in Anaheim. McConnell said Saturday he thinks about that game constantly.
“It gave us a long time to think about it, and we watched them go to a Final Four and lose at the buzzer to Kentucky,” he said. “We thought that should have been us.”
Now, maybe it can be. And that, McConnell agreed, would be a gift worth remembering.