Rushed Reactions: #1 Arizona 70, #4 San Diego State 64

Posted by Andrew Murawa (@amurawa) on March 28th, 2014

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Andrew Murawa (@amurawa) is the NCAA Tournament’s West Region correspondent. He filed this report after #1 Arizona’s 70-64 win over #4 San Diego State. RTC will be providing wall-to-wall coverage of the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight. Follow our NCAA Tourney specific Twitter accounts at @RTCeastregion, @RTCMWregion,@RTCsouthregion and @RTCwestregion.

Three Key Takeaways.

  1. Fighting Through A Tough Game. Nick Johnson, the Pac-12 Player of the Year  and a rock for the Wildcats, started the game missing his first ten field goal attempts and, even more confusing, getting scored on at the other end of the court by guys like Xavier Thames and Dwayne Polee. This was a bad sign, as one thing previous Arizona losses had in common were cold shooting nights by Johnson. But at no time was he ever visibly down on himself or giving anything less than 100% effort. And after a T.J. McConnell steal turned into an easy hoop for Johnson on the break with just under three minutes left in the game, that broke the seal. He hit a dagger three on the next Arizona possession to put the Wildcats up six and then made ten straight clutch free throws down the stretch to ensure that the Wildcats’ lead would be safe. It probably wasn’t the type of game Johnson envisioned prior to the game, but his ability to keep his head in the game and stick with it through his struggles bear the hallmark of a champion. And, in the end, he still wound up tied with Aaron Gordon and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson as the Wildcats’ leading scorer, with 15. After the game, Sean Miller’s main theme was his pride in his team’s resiliency, and Johnson was a perfect example.

    Nick Johnson Did Not Have A Great Game, But He Stuck With It To Help His Team Win (Christian Petersen, Getty Images)

    Nick Johnson Did Not Have A Great Game, But He Stuck With It To Help His Team Win (Christian Petersen, Getty Images)

  1. San Diego State Rebounding. In their first matchup, Arizona dominated the glass. They grabbed 40.6% of offensive rebound opportunities and controlled 74.3% of defensive rebound chances. For the first San Diego State possession of the night, you could tell that those types of stats were drilled into the Aztecs’ heads. On the first possession, Skylar Spencer and Josh Davis were each credit with a single offensive rebound before Davis put the ball back in for a hoop.  And the Aztecs may have been under-credited there. On the third possession, the Aztecs were credited with three more offensive boards before Davis again wound up putting the ball back in. A tone was set early and it continued throughout the first half and throughout the game. But, you can bet that Miller mentioned the rebounding disparity to his team at the half, because down the stretch Gordon grabbed a couple of huge offensive rebounds on consecutive possessions under the six-minute mark that turned into big buckets for the Wildcats. Arizona made the final rebounding margin a bit more respectable, but the Aztecs’ work on the glass helped keep them in this game.
  2. Rebounding, Redux. Arizona has now been outrebounded in every game they’ve played in this tournament, quite a change for a team that was in the top 25 in the nation on both ends of the court coming into this game. Miller noted after the game that this may just be who the Wildcats are these days – a good rebounding team, but no longer a great once since the loss of power forward Brandon Ashley. “People say that we’re a big team. Since Brandon left us, our size is good, but not great… Our room for error rebounding the ball is lost. We don’t beat you up any more… We’ve need all five guys on every shot to box out, we have to work hard to get second shots.” The Aztecs certainly opened up a lot of eyes to that fact and now, with a Wisconsin team that does a terrific job cleaning the defensive glass, second chance opportunities on Saturday will be hard to come by.

Star of the GameRondae Hollis-Jefferson, Arizona. Gordon’s play was spectacular, Thames and Davis were in the mix here, but we’ll give the nod to the freshman who continued his excellent play in this tournament. His energy was off the charts. When the Wildcats were getting killed on the glass in the first half, he was the one guy going in there are fighting for boards. He was a terror defensively, and man, when he got a clean look at the rim, he was ready to throw down a jam. He’s now scored in double figures in all three games, is shooting 70% from the field and, perhaps most impressively, has knocked in 85.7% of his free throw attempts – not bad for a 67% shooter during the regular season.

Sights & Sounds. Phenomenal Atmosphere. After a sleepy undercard, the nightcap in Anaheim was spectacular. Even before tip-off, the some 17,000 fans in attendance (probably 90% of whom would be counted as Arizona or San Diego State fans, split more or less evently) were in great voice. And with the peaks and valleys of the action on the floor came peaks and valleys of sound for different areas of the arena. It was, in a word, electric. The arena bathed in red, U-of-A chants alternating with cries of “I believe that we will win.” This was an example of the best that March has to offer.

Wildcard. Josh Davis. In the first matchup, Davis was overpowered by the Wildcat front line, holding the newest Aztec to one-of-seven shooting and just four rebounds. Afterwards, talk was that the step up in competition and athleticism would render him less effective than he had been last year. Tonight, however, he was a mad man and he put all of those questions a. He grabbed 14 total boards, six on the offensive end, played great defense

Turning Point. So many choices. There was the Gordon one-handed alley-oop dunk with 14:26 left in the second half that brought the Wildcats within two and forced Steve Fisher to call a timeout. Gordon was asked after the game if he thought that jam helped energize the team, and beside him, Johnson nodded his head adamantly. Another turning point may have been that aforementioned McConnell steal, where he poked the ball away from Winston Shepard, dove on the floor to retrieve the ball, found an open Gabe York to pass it to, who in turn got the ball to Johnson to get him off the schneid. Or maybe it was a possession later, when San Diego State broke into their 1-3-1 zone. Earlier in the game, the Aztecs had briefly shown that zone, and Miller responded by calling an immediate timeout and reminding his team of their strategy against such a defense. This time around, the Wildcats didn’t call a timeout, but they ran perfect offense and Kaleb Tarczewski found Johnson wide open for a confident three.

Quotable. Sean Miller: “We’ve played 37 games now. That was the most physical, hard-fought game of the season for us. San Diego State really set the tone on how the game was going to be played. I mean, they must have had seven or eight second chance shots in the first three minutes of the game… But the story is about us advancing. It took tremendous toughness and resolve. We overcame Nick not scoring, Kaleb in foul trouble. That to me was the story of the game: us finding a way, being tough-minded and almost willing our way to the finish line.”

What’s Next?  Arizona will face Wisconsin on Saturday evening in a battle of two coaches high on the list of “Best Coaches Never To Reach a Final Four” between Sean Miller and Bo Ryan. Meanwhile, San Diego State wraps up a great season that ended in their second-ever Sweet Sixteen appearance. Xavier Thames’ career as an Aztec is done (as is the career of Josh Davis), but the future is still bright for Steve Fisher’s program.

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