Moving on: Arizona Wildcats basketball defeats Belmont in NCAA tournament, moves onto the next round
SALT LAKE CITY — Belmont was supposed to be Arizona’s kryptonite, with its top-of-the-line 3-point shooting offense.
The way the game opened, it’s a wonder the 11th-seed Belmont became such a trendy pick to upset the sixth-seed Wildcats.
After the tip and a few passes, Nick Johnson found freshman center Kaleb Tarczewski down low. Tarczewski attacked the basket, went to the free throw line and hit both free throws.
Then Tarczewski hustled back on defense and blocked Trevor Noack’s attempt at a layup.
The tone was set for the game, and Arizona never trailed in a commanding 81-64 second-round NCAA Tournament win at EnergySolutions Arena.
“[Tarczewski] knew he was the difference in the game,” said point guard Mark Lyons, who scored a game-high 23 points.
While everyone was focusing on Belmont’s sweet-shooting reputation, they overlooked the Wildcats’ size advantage. The Bruins’ tallest contributors — Blake Jenkins and Trevor Noack — are 6-foot-7.
“I guess the stat that’s overwhelming is rebounding,” head coach Sean Miller said. “That shows the effort level we played with.”
The trio of 7-foot Tarczewski, 6-foot-10 Grant Jerrett and 6-foot-8 Brandon Ashley outrebounded Belmont all on its own. The three had 21 rebounds between them and Arizona had 44 as a team, while the Bruins grabbed 18 boards. Arizona also outscored Belmont 36-18 in the paint.
“Every time we got the ball in the post, something great happened,” guard/forward Kevin Parrom said.
Tarczewski finished with 12 points on a perfect shooting night (5-of-5), along with eight rebounds and one block, before fouling out with three minutes to go.
“We knew we had the size advantage,” Tarczewski said. “The guards did a great job of handing me the ball in post where we could score and make plays out of it. We did that really well tonight.”
Even with the presence of a talented, big front line, Arizona’s season-long struggles defending the long ball still hung over its head.
“I don’t blame a lot of people for picking Belmont,” Miller said. “They can shoot the ball; they have a great backcourt.”
Ian Clark is the poster boy for Belmont’s 3-point accuracy — the senior guard has the best 3-point percentage in the nation.
With Johnson covering him, Clark had 21 points and hit three 3-pointers. Kerron Johnson, Clark’s backcourt partner, added 22 points and two 3-pointers. But outside of those two, the Bruins shot 3-of-14 from long range.
Late in the second half, though, Arizona started taking its foot off the pedal, and Belmont capitalized.
Starting at the five minute, 35 second mark, Clark hit a three, then J.J. Mann stole the ball and hit a trey of his own, bringing Belmont within 11 points at 64-53.
While Arizona might have slowed down on defense, it did no such thing on the other side of the ball.
The Wildcats outscored Belmont 17-10 the rest of the way, but more impressive was their otherworldly second-half efficiency: Arizona shot 67.9 percent (19-of-28) from the field and 62.5 percent (5-of-8) from long range and scored 49 points.
“We played the score,” Mark Lyons said, “but it’s hard. They were fighting for their life. Of course they’re going to play a lot harder than us, but we stayed with it and still pulled out the win. It wasn’t as close as they wanted it to be.”
It wasn’t close, despite Tarczewski and Solomon Hill’s foul trouble and Arizona’s 16 turnovers and the 22 points Belmont scored off of them.
Hill committed three fouls in the first half and never really found his groove, finishing with nine points, four rebounds, one assist and three turnovers.
But it didn’t matter in the end.
Now the Wildcats move on to the next round to face Harvard on Saturday.
“We’re very excited to still be in the tournament,” Miller said.