SAN JOSE, Calif. — As Arizona tried in vain to account for how it squandered an eight-point lead in less than four minutes against 11th-seeded Xavier, sophomore guard Allonzo Trier shot down one popular explanation.
Trier insists poor shot selection wasn’t the reason the Wildcats failed to score on their last six possessions of their 73-71 loss. He instead argued that the tough shots he and his teammates missed were ones they often make.
“At least for me, I feel good about all the ones I took,” Trier said. “I had a few that were just so wide open, and it was like, that didn’t go down? It it is what it is. Those are shots I’ve made millions of times in my life.”
A closer dissection of the game film may someday change Trier’s mind about whether Arizona got the caliber of shots it wanted late in Thursday’s game. The Wildcats were content to hoist shots over the top of Xavier’s zone defense, allowing the Musketeers to steal a game that at one point seemed to belong to Arizona.
When the Wildcats reeled off 12 straight points to take a 69-61 lead with 3:45 remaining, they appeared to have punched their ticket to a fourth Elite Eight in seven seasons. They instead let an outstanding 32-win season to end with the pain of knowing they wasted a golden opportunity to get Sean Miller to his elusive first Final Four.
An inability to generate open shots down the stretch against Xavier’s trademark 1-3-1 zone was certainly a huge factor in Arizona’s downfall. The Pac-12 champion Wildcats missed all but one of their attempts after taking that late eight-point lead, their lone points coming on a driving layup by Kadeem Allen with 2:54 to go.
Four of Arizona’s six empty possessions thereafter ended in Trier’s hands. He committed a costly turnover and missed three contested jumpers, the last of which was a potential game-winning step-back top-of-the-key 3-pointer with six seconds left that went halfway down but popped out.
“We weren’t able to get great looks down the stretch or a wide-open one,” Arizona coach Sean Miller said. “And that’s not these guys. That’s on me. We have to be more comfortable than this late in the season against that type of defense and we really just never established the rhythm I think we needed.”
Something that will haunt Arizona all offseason was its inability to get its future lottery pick involved late in the second half. Unable to shake free of the array of defenders Xavier threw at him, Lauri Markkanen finished with a quiet nine points and did not take another shot after missing a 3-pointer with 11:09 to play.
“I think my teammates were more open than me,” Markkanen said. “Every time I got the ball, there was a defender right in front of me.”
Arizona instead resorted to a lot of isolation plays for its guards, no surprise considering that frequently has been its plan this season. The Wildcats won their second-round game against Saint Mary’s despite tallying only four assists.
But Xavier is more athletic than Saint Mary’s and its zone did a better job protecting the paint. Arizona hoisted 27 threes and sank only seven. Ten of the 3-point attempts were from Trier, who sparked the 12-0 run that gave Arizona its late lead but finished just 8-for-19 from the floor for a team-best 19 points.
“They got a lot of great one-on-one type, iso players,” Xavier guard Quentin Goodin said. “But for them to do it so much, I guess that kind of threw me off. It made it easier on us — playing one versus three, one versus five at some points. It really made it easy on us to just focus on one guy and rebound the ball.”
Arizona’s loss continued its painful string of near misses in the second weekend of the NCAA tournament.
The two best teams Miller has coached ran into powerful Wisconsin in the Elite Eight in 2014 and 2015. An overachieving squad led by Derrick Williams would have been Final Four-bound had a potential game-winning 3-pointer fallen at the buzzer against UConn in 2011. Even Arizona’s 2013 team was close to meeting Wichita State for a spot in the Final Four but it came up three points shy of upsetting Ohio State in the Sweet 16.
Xavier was probably the least accomplished of the teams that have ended Arizona’s season, but the 13-loss Musketeers hardly resemble what they were a month ago.
They weren’t a sure bet to even make the NCAA tournament when they lost six straight games soon after starting point guard Edmond Sumner suffered a season-ending knee injury in late January. But they righted themselves by playing solid defense, dominating the glass and riding the hot hand of star wing Trevon Bluiett.
Arizona might have been able to survive its crunch-time offensive woes Thursday night if it could have strung together more stops, but the Wildcats’ defense was ineffective against the Musketeers. Xavier shot 52.8 percent from the field, Bluiett and guards Malcolm Bernard and J.P Macura accounting for 54 of their points.
When Xavier showed trademark resilience after Arizona’s 12-0 surge, the Wildcats were unable to respond. They couldn’t get a stop. They couldn’t hit a shot. And now they’re going home earlier than expected as a result.
“Everyone’s eyes … were set on the Final Four, and we weren’t able to reach that,” Trier said. “Our tourney ends today in the Sweet 16. It’s really tough to go out like that, especially when you know what you’re capable of, but that’s how college basketball. Any day, anybody can beat you, and today was our day.”
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• Wisconsin’s Nigel Hayes rails against New York
• Ranking the most compelling potential Final Four matchups
• NCAA gives state of North Carolina deadline to repeal controversial law
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