SALT LAKE CITY—The Arizona Wildcats call them “wars” , the 10 four-minute segments that make up one basketball game. “They are little games in themselves,” said sophomore shooting guard Nick Johnson. “If you win the most four-minute wars, you usually win the game.”
It took Arizona just three wars to decide its round of 32 battle with tournament darling Harvard: By the 16:00 mark in the first half, the Wildcats were up 8-2. By the 12:00 mark, the lead had stretched to 17-5; by 8:00 it was 30-9. The Crimson never got closer than 16 after that, eventually bowing out 74-51.
Mark Lyons, the New Yorker who had transferred from Xavier to Arizona to play point guard in his final year, had 27 points, including three three-pointers and a collection of acrobatic lay-ins, on his way to his second straight Sweet 16 and third overall. (Collectively, the Wildcats shot 9-15 from the three, a season-best and nearly double their season three-point average.) “Mark’s a great scorer and he’s become a better point guard in March,” said teammate Kevin Parrom. “What a beautiful time to learn that.”
It was the second straight dominating effort by the Wildcats, a team that had been hard to peg during stretches of the season. Their 14-0 start included wins over Florida and Miami but also a series of last-second escapes, including a controversial home win over Colorado when Sabatino Chen’s buzzer-beating three was waved off. They finished a season-ending 5-5 stretch with a loss to UCLA in the Pac-12 tournament, their third loss to the Bruins this season.
But the team that suffered from slow starts and occasional spotty defense during the season seemed to embrace a new identity -- or rediscover an old one -- in Salt Lake City. On Thursday, the Wildcats held Belmont, one of the best three-point shooting teams in the country, to 29.6 percent shooting from the arc in an 81-64 blowout. They were even stingier on Saturday, holding Harvard to 0-13 shooting through the first 7:46, all while shooting better than 61 percent. The Crimson, who had deflated the heavily favored New Mexico Lobos with a flurry of three-point shots in their upset win on Thursday, were held to a season-low 25-percent shooting in the first half and 27.6 percent from the field (and 27.8 percent from the three) for the game. Junior guard Laurent Rivard, who killed New Mexico from beyond the arc with five threes, was held to just one, on six attempts. “I’m so proud of our guys,” said Arizona assistant Emanuel “Book” Richardson. “This was the hardest that we played defensively from start to finish all year.” “We knew what team we were early on in the season,” Johnson said, “even if we didn’t get the credit for it. We knew that we were a special team. I think we’re playing hard on defense. I think we got a lot of defense back and on offense we’re clicking. But I think there’s still one more level we can get to.”