ANAHEIM, Calif. - We should have seen it coming, seen the way San Diego State began Thursday night’s West Region Sweet 16 clash with Arizona and known it couldn’t last.
We should have realized immediately the energy the fourth-seeded Aztecs brought from the opening tip was not sustainable, that fatigue and the law of averages would catch up with them and so too would top-seeded Arizona. But there was joy in it, pleasure in watching the underdog Aztecs and the raucous fans that followed them to the Honda Center, and so we delighted with them in the possibility.
Then, with about four minutes remaining, reality arrived. Rebounds that the Aztecs owned earlier in the game were grabbed by Wildcats. Shots by star San Diego State point guard Xavier Thames and others began to fall short. Then Arizona’s Nick Johnson, who San Diego State had hounded into a 0-for-10 start, made a layup and then a three-pointer. He would score 15 points in the final 2:46 of the game, an astonishingly sudden transformation from goat to glory.
“Man, we had to grind everything out tonight,” said Arizona guard Gabe York after the Wildcats moved on to the Elite Eight with a 70-64 victory. “It was just a game like that. A grind.”
Arizona will face second-seeded Wisconsin on Saturday, and while the Wildcats were favored to be in that position there is cause to honor how they outlasted San Diego State. Freshmen Aaron Gordon and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson scored 15 points apiece, buoying the Wildcats in a first half when they were dominated on the boards (24-14). Credit, too, the Arizona defense for pouncing when the Aztecs showed weakness, holding them over seven minutes without a field goal in the second half, upping the defensive intensity when the Aztecs began to tire. Kudos also to Johnson, a great player who shook off an awful 37 minutes.
It is a victory that creates some interesting storylines, including Miller and his brother, Dayton coach Archie Miller, both taking teams to this Elite Eight. Much discourse will also be dedicated to Sean Miller’s matchup Saturday with Wisconsin’s Bo Ryan, two of the best coaches in the country without a national title going head-to-head.
But before lauding the Wildcats further pause for at least a moment and admire the punch San Diego State threw in Arizona’s direction Thursday night. Watching Thames (25 points) walk stiff-legged from the locker room, watching forward Josh Davis (14 rebounds, 10 in the first-half) walk gingerly on two sore heels, watching players fall into chairs before their locker and seem incapable of getting up was to witness a group that had spent every ounce of energy in defeat.
“I’m tired, maybe more tired than most games, but that may just be because we lost,” said forward J.J. O’Brien.
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Asked why they lost, one by one the Aztecs mentioned a few possessions down the stretch when they failed to execute. They left out that those failures had much to do with the players having nothing left in the tank. They took their best shot early against the Wildcats, but didn’t pull ahead enough (leading only 32-28 at the half) and then couldn’t weather what inevitably came.
Asked if he could take solace in the effort put forth, San Diego State forward Winston Shepard, shook his head. “Not for me, no. We didn’t get another notch in the win column. Look, this is basketball. We are not sitting here saying, ‘Well, we made it this far.’ We are not like that. We don’t walk away with any moral victories.”
Maybe they should. Arizona certainly saw reason to salute their effort.
“We’ve played 37 games now and that was the most physical, hard fought game of the season,” Sean Miller said. “San Diego State set the tone for how this game was going to be played. I mean, they might have had seven or eight second shots in the first three minutes of the game. Their physicality, their athleticism, their toughness, they’ve got a tremendous team.”
So, too, does Miller, to state the obvious. Wildcats center Kaleb Tarczewski was in foul trouble for the bulk of the game. Hollis-Jefferson fouled out with just under five minutes remaining. Johnson was a non-factor on offense up until those closing minutes. And, yet, Arizona found a way to win. Miller knows he doesn’t have a perfect team, not with Brandon Ashley’s injury early in the season depriving the team of another big man. But the Wildcats have proven they can adapt – such as adjusting quickly to the 1-3-1 San Diego State threw late at them -- and that they can also take a hell of a punch and prevail.
“A game like this there are a lot of little things,” Miller said. “Our poise, like when they change defenses late in the game and to create a good open three [for Johnson] he makes it that gave us confidence the game was going in our direction ... You don’t get to this level without having that toughness and resolve. It was the story of the game, us being tough-minded and almost willing our way to the finish line.”