For the first 32 minutes of No. 6 Xavier’s Sweet 16 showdown with No. 2 Arizona on Thursday, it had an upset firmly in its grasp. Matt Stainbrook was the most effective player on the floor. Arizona’s scoring woes showed up at the worst possible time. Stanley Johnson went quiet for most of the second half, and T.J McConnell had as many turnovers as assists. Everything was lining up perfectly for the Musketeers.
The following five minutes belonged to Arizona. And those five minutes were enough to swing the game to the Wildcats.
Trailing 53-49 with just under seven minutes left in the game, Arizona went on a 13-4 run in five minutes, and closed the game on an 19-7 spurt, getting back to the Elite Eight for the second straight season with a 68-60 win. McConnell struggled for most of the night, but led the Wildcats with 17 points. Johnson and Kaleb Tarczewski each had 12, while the latter grabbed 12 rebounds.
Xavier was able to control the pace for the balance of the game, slowing it down and keeping Arizona out of rhythm by changing regularly between a normal man defense and 1-3-1 zone. On the offensive end, Stainbrook used his repertoire of pivots and head fakes, scoring 10 points in the first half. Even as the Musketeers failed to get anything going from behind the arc after halftime, they were able to build a scant four-point lead over the first 13 minutes of the second half. That’s when Arizona took over.
It started with Xavier in the 1-3-1 that had so flustered Arizona. Of course, any zone is going to make it harder to clean up the defensive glass, and Tarczewski got an offensive board and put it back to cut the Xavier lead to 53-51 with 6:54 left in the game. McConnell and Tarczewski made four free throws combined on Arizona’s next two trips to give Arizona its first lead since early in the second half. Ultimately, it would never lose this one. The Wildcats scored on each of their next four possessions, growing the lead to seven points. Xavier never again had possession with a chance to tie or take the lead.
Arizona moves on to take on No. 1 Wisconsin on Saturday. These two teams were in exactly this spot one year ago, matching up in the West Region final with a trip to the Final Four on the line. The only difference was the setting and the seeds. Last year, it was Arizona that was the top seed while Wisconsin was the two. It ended up being one of the best games of the tournament, with Wisconsin winning 64-63 in overtime. The encore promises to be another classic.