SALT LAKE CITY – I’ve seen this game before. Once, twice, heck, more than I can count. Arizona had been in enough of them this season and in NCAA tournaments past.
This was Arizona vs. Xavier in 2015.
Arizona vs. Mississippi in 2001.
South Alabama in 1997.
And a few more.
Eventually Arizona won all those, finding a way to get through the muck and mess that a slow-it-down team presents in the NCAA tournament.
And St. Mary’s slowed the pace down to a crawl … in the first half.
Eventually, Arizona picked up the pace – it had no other choice – to advance to its fifth Sweet 16 in six years beating the Gaels 69-60 at Vivint Arena.
“That’s amazing for the program,” said Arizona freshman Rawle Alkins, who suffered a dislocated right index finger early in Saturday’s game. “I wasn’t part of the other ones but I’m thankful to be part of this one.”
Lauri Markkanen: 16 Pts, 11 Reb; 1st Arizona freshman with double-double in NCAA Tournament since Channing Frye in 2002 vs Wyoming
A part of it?
He was an integral part of it in as he came in after suffering the injury and quickly made a presence. He finished with six points, one key assist, a steal and a dislocated finger.
With two fingers taped up, he scored on an aggressive drive to the basket and on another threw a crucial assist to keep Arizona in the game.
And for most of the first 30 minutes, it was all about survival for Arizona against the methodical Gaels. Arizona had no answers for the first 20 minutes. Still, it was able to stay close.
As much as Sean Miller may have been upset at half time, he had to be encouraged that despite Arizona’s troubles it was only down one, 30-29.
“We knew we weren’t playing our best basketball in the first half,” said Kadeem Allen. “Coming into the second half we kept confidence and kept playing the game, and just kept battling it out.”
It’s like a prize race horse stumbling at the start only to catch up by the far turn, eventually winning down the stretch.
Isn’t that Arizona most of this season? Why would you expect anything different?
“I look at this as one of the great wins we’ve had in the tournament because of the team that we beat,” Miller said. “We hung in there.”
Remember that Arizona has had some huge wins in this tournament under Miller.
He added: “It was a microcosm of our season.”
Wildcats roll into the Sweet 16!
No. 2 seed Arizona beats No. 7 seed Saint Mary's to head to the Sweet 16 for 5th time under Sean Miller. pic.twitter.com/uKu7REVdd8
Injuries. Rallying. Winning.
Broken bones need not apply.
Broken hearts? Well, that’s another matter. But there would be none for Arizona on Saturday night.
“I was scared and I thought it was a serious injury,” Alkins said when they took him back into the locker room. “Then they popped it back in. I hung in there.”
Arizona did as a team.
And it came from everyone – again.
WATCH: @UACoachMiller Postgame Press Conference Highlights – St. Mary's
Allonzo Trier, absent in the first half, scored 14 in the second half perhaps trying too hard in the first half. Miller said Trier may have wanted to play well too much that he over thought it. But he put it behind him and, “really got going,” Miller said.
“I almost feel like the difference in the game was his offensive outburst maybe midway through the second half. He regained his confidence. And when he’s confident offensively our team is a lot better.”
Lauri Markkanen had 16, including a huge 3-pointer late in the game and a pair of blocks that stifled the Gaels’ rally.
“Lauri’s post defense was terrific down the home stretch,” Miller said.
Dusan Ristic had 13.
Allen had 12. And his defense was equally as good.
“He’s as hard a playing guy as I’ve seen,” Miller said. “And he won’t let his team lose to some degree. And I thought his mentality defensively finally caught on.”
Still, no player was more important than the other.
Again, that’s been the makeup of this year’s team: Every. Player. Mattered.
If there’s a theme for 2016-17 season that should be it.
If not that theme it could be: Arizona will be prepared. Once again, Arizona was able to handle the slower pace – eventually. It’s faced different style after different style and has survived.
Frustrating perhaps, but winning solves all that.
What does it say about Arizona?
“That we are warriors,” Alkins said. “At the end of the day we’re going to do everything it takes to win.”
In his case, pull a dislocated finger out and get back on the court.
“I saw on the TV that we were down 10 and I told our trainer, ‘you have to do whatever it takes to get me back on the court,’” Alkins said. “They did an x-ray. Luckily it’s a minor fracture and I told them I would still play. And he put me back in the game.”
When asked if Alkins had to lobby to get back in the game, all Miller would say is, “I don’t know if we would have had enough to win. But we believe in Rawle.”
In Rawle they Trust!
“It’s March Madness … we had to win,” Alkins said of him telling Miller of coming back to play. “It’s go hard or go home. We had to win. And do it whatever it took.”
Arizona did, and now on to San Jose, Calif.