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SALT LAKE CITY — Sean Miller always says he’s confident he’ll reach his first Final Four someday if he just keeps knocking on the door year after year.
Well, now Arizona is once again just two wins away from busting through.
Second-seeded Arizona reached the Sweet 16 for the fifth time in Miller’s eight-year tenure Saturday with a hard-earned 69-60 victory over seventh-seeded Saint Mary’s. The Wildcats trailed by as many as 10 points in the first half, but Allonzo Trier scored all 14 of his points after halftime to help ensure that his team would advance.
“He really got going,” Miller said. “I almost feel like the difference in the game was his offensive outburst midway through the second half. He regained his confidence. And when he’s confident offensively, our team is a lot better.”
A Sweet 16 would be celebration-worthy for many programs, but for Arizona it’s a stepping stone. Three of Miller’s four previous Sweet 16 teams reached the Elite Eight only to fall in the final minute in heartbreaking fashion, to eventual national champ UConn in 2011 and to Wisconsin in 2014 and 2015.
Standing in Arizona’s way in its quest for another Elite Eight is 11th-seeded Xavier, the school where Miller spent five years as a head coach and three as an assistant prior to coming to Tucson. The Wildcats (32-4) edged the Musketeers 68-60 in a Sweet 16 game in Los Angeles back in 2015.
That Arizona is back in the Sweet 16 is remarkable considering the adversity the Wildcats endured during the season. They lost five-star freshman Terrence Ferguson when he opted to turn pro amid eligibility issues, five-star freshman Ray Smith to a career-ending knee injury and leading returning scorer Allonzo Trier to a 19-game suspension for PED use.
Despite the distraction of when Trier’s indefinite suspension would be lifted and the challenge of a slew of other nagging injuries, Miller managed to keep Arizona focused and on task. A team with three freshman starters and only eight scholarship players managed to stay in Pac-12 title contention until Trier could come back and help the Wildcats finish the job.
Arizona entered the NCAA tournament riding the momentum of a Pac-12 tournament title, but the Wildcats were challenged from start to finish against Saint Mary’s (29-5). The Gaels led by as many as 10 in the first half and were within three with just under four minutes to play.
There was no single hero for Arizona in turning the game in its favor.
Markkanen led the Wildcats with 16 points including a huge corner 3-pointer that doubled the lead to six in the final four minutes. Trier added had a couple of key baskets midway through the second half when Arizona needed a spark. And Rawle Alkins shook off a fractured index finger to produce the game’s most impressive defensive play, single-handedly thwarting a 3-on-1 Saint Mary’s break by baiting the Gaels into throwing a lob and ripping it out of the air.
“It says a lot about Rawle what he was able to do tonight,” Miller said. “Anybody that’s played the game and has suffered an injury [to his shooting hand] knows how difficult it is to do what he did tonight.”
For most of the season, folks have dismissed Saint Mary’s as a quality team because it has piled up 29 wins against a modest schedule. Reaching the round of 32 and pushing Arizona to the final minutes was proof the Gaels were no frauds.
Jock Landale tallied 19 points and 11 rebounds and Calvin Hermanson and Tanner Krebs both scored in double figures, but the Gaels were undone by 5-for-21 shooting from behind the arc. They just didn’t quite have enough to derail Arizona’s latest attempt to get Miller an elusive Final Four.
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