SAN DIEGO – When Pelle Larsson hit a 3-pointer with eight minutes left to make it 73-52 you felt Arizona was on its way to an easy win.
Larsson ended up at center court, pumping his first in elation, in what he hoped would get his team going.
“To me it didn’t mean a lot,” he said of the shot. “But every play we make it’s just (about) trying to get the team going and get the crowd going. Showing emotion has always helped us throughout the year.”
Every player on the postgame podium nodded, as did coach Tommy Lloyd to Larsson’s response.
Maybe it was just a relief. Game 1 was over and now Arizona moves on to face Texas Christian on Sunday.
The year – magical as it is – will continue after Arizona’s 87-70 win over Wright State here at Viejas Arena.
And even if the score shows a nice, comfortable win, it was hardly that.
Well, it’s never easy – no matter the seed or the situation. Arizona fans know the drill … If you aren’t drilling someone handily it means anything can happen and usually does.
The scare is real. The emotions are real. Teams just have to get through them.
Friday night near the beach here, it was hardly a day on the water.
When Wright State cut the lead to 52-44 with 14 minutes left, Wright State coach Scott Nagy, during a timeout, looked at his team and nodded.
“I looked at them and they all shook their head, we got it,” Nagy said of his team’s feeling good about itself. “Now we can play. And that was a good moment for me. I didn’t have anything to say (because) all of a sudden, they were excited.
Then … Dalen Terry hit a 3-pointer, Christian Koloko had a basket and Bennedict Mathurin hit an improbable 3-pointer that bounced off the rim, went high in the air, and fell in.
“It was like, you have to be kidding me,” Nagy said to himself. “What do we have to do? I think that was very discouraging. We had the ball two or three times down by eight and it’s tough to score on them because they are so big.”
None came bigger than Koloko, who had a monster game. He had 17 points, 13 rebounds, five blocks, and six assists. He said he didn’t even know his numbers until he entered the media tent.
“It feels good,” he said. “I think (UA’s PR guy) told me right before when we came in here. It feels good. I don’t know what to say. I was playing basketball and it just happened and so I’m just happy.”
And so was everyone involved with UA, which is 32-3 overall.
After all, Wright State, a play-in winner to get to this game, gave Arizona some trouble. And then didn’t. And then did. And then didn’t.
“I was proud of how our guys (they) hung in there,” Lloyd said. “This is the first time, for these guys, experiencing an NCAA Tournament. The first-round game is always interesting.”
That coming from the coach with the No. 1 seed in the South and No. 2 seed overall.
Arizona played as good as expected but had lapses in judgment more than you’d think would occur for a team perceived to be one of the best in the country.
By the time Arizona had 10 turnovers – midway through the first half – Lloyd was asking himself and his assistants: who the heck are we?
Are they the team that can handle the fast pace without turning the ball over or will they go fast and just deal with the consequences?
It’s somewhere in the middle. How does a coach say go fast but be careful?
“We’ve got to tighten it up,” Lloyd said. “I don’t want these guys to play conservative. Obviously, we’re playing without Kerr (Krissa) right now. We have to tighten it up a little bit and hopefully we’ll be able to rein it in for the next game because we’re shooting a great percentage, but the turnovers on offense kill your efficiency.”
But it didn’t kill Arizona’s quest for a title.
There’s no better teaching tool than the mistakes that were made. And Arizona had 19 of them, which helped Wright State stay within an uncomfortable number most of the second half. Luckily for Arizona, Wright State couldn’t convert the turnovers into points. It finished with just eight points on those 19.
Still, as Arizona’s fans know given its history in these tournaments, no lead is safe.
“We have a lot of things to go over,” UA’s Bennedict Mathurin said. “We had a lot of turnovers, bad decisions we didn’t play with fundamentals at first, but we adjusted the second half, took care of the ball a little bit. (We) just (need) do the things that we used to do the whole year, basically. So, we had a pretty good experience, pretty good performance. But always need to improve.”
Anything to get through the first round unscathed. Lloyd did choose to play without its point guard, Kerr Kriisa, to give him an additional day of rest from his right ankle sprain. Lloyd said he doesn’t feel his starting point guard is ready yet.
“We hoped that we could get through this game without needing him,” Lloyd said. “And fortunately, we were (capable). Now, we’ll kind of roll up our sleeves and see what tomorrow brings. He’s closer to playing than not playing, so hopefully soon.”
His return could – maybe – bring a more stabilizing force to his team’s offense. Early on, even with a quick 18-5 lead, Lloyd had to tell his team to settle down, specifically senior guard Justin Kier, who had a rough start.
“He’s done that couple times early in these games where he’s come out and just kind of got tunnel vision and locked in on a pass, and kind of forced something instead of making reads,” Lloyd said of Kier. “I’ll give him credit, though. Seems like every time he’s done that, his second run he’s calmed down and made better decisions. I think he did a good job kind of making some nice entry passes to get us post-ups in the second half … to be honest with you, looked like Dalen (Terry) played the point a lot. I know you think I’m crazy, I don’t tell them, either one, to be the point guard. My idea is whichever one wants it should be it. And I was happy with that. We’re 3-0 without our starting point guard. It’s a great time of year to be 3-0.”
Because there is another day to play.