How sweet it is: Arizona smothers Gonzaga
SAN DIEGO — Placed high on the wall in the Arizona locker room was a sign that read “Defense Wins.”
Minutes after No. 1-seeded Arizona’s 84-61 win against No. 8-seeded Gonzaga in the NCAA Tournament, energy and excitement filled the locker room. The Wildcats advanced to their second straight Sweet Sixteen.
“It’s fun to be out there,” sophomore center Kaleb Tarczewski said. “You just want to smile. It feels good.”
From the opening tip of Arizona’s Round of 32 NCAA Tournament game, the Wildcats (32-4) used their relentless defense to take charge and never let the Bulldogs back into the game.
Gonzaga junior center/forward Sam Dower (35) tries to block Arizona freshman forward Rondae Hollis-Jefferson's (23) shot during Arizona's 84-61 victory against Gonzaga in the third round of the NCAA Tournament at Viejas Arena in San Diego, Cali. on Sunday. Arizona advances to the Sweet Sixteen in Anaheim, Cali.
In the first 8:09 of the game, Arizona’s defense forced six turnovers and scored 10 points off those turnovers to take a 22-11 lead.
From that point on the Wildcats’ defensive didn’t stop, and leading that charge was non-starter and freshman forward Rondae Hollis-Jefferson.
“That’s what I live for,” Hollis-Jefferson said, “to come out, play hard and give the team a spark.”
The freshman filled the stat line. Hollis-Jefferson finished the game with 18 points, five rebounds, five assists and four blocks and was a perfect 8-8 from the free throw line.
Right there with him was fellow freshman forward Aaron Gordon; both players contributed 18 points. Gordon also made a big contribution on defense and had four steals.
As a team, Arizona picked Gonzaga’s (29-7) pocket 15 times — a NCAA Tournament record — and forced it to turn the ball over a total of 21 times.
“No question we didn’t catch Gonzaga on their best night,” head coach Sean Miller said. “If we played this game over again I don’t think they would turn the ball over [as much].”
With every turnover, blocked shot and fast break alley-oop, the energy inside Viejas Arena seem to rise. The 11,504 in attendance — mostly Arizona fans — rarely had an opportunity to rest their legs or catch their breath.
“That’s basketball for you,” Hollis-Jefferson said. “Playing fast-paced, pushing it, seeing your guy in transition, looking for the open guy cutting down the middle and then boom, dunk, there you go. That’s what we live for.”
Arizona scored 31 of its 84 total points off of turnovers. It forced a turnover every 8.3 Bulldog possessions.
When Gonzaga attempted to slow down the pace, it gave the ball to 7-foot-1 sophomore center Przemek Karnowski, but the Wildcats double-teamed him.
The Bulldogs didn’t even have a chance to get the ball into the low post. As soon as they reached half-court an Arizona defender met them to mess up the tempo.
“They rushed us,” Gonzaga sophomore guard Kyle Dranginis said. “We couldn’t get into our rhythm.”
The Wildcats will play San Diego State in the Sweet 16 on Thursday night in Anaheim, Calif.
That same defensive energy will be traveling with them to Southern California, said Hollis-Jefferson.
“As I’ve said before, we take pride in defense,” Hollis-Jefferson said. “Defense wins championships, and we’re going to keep playing defense.”
— Follow Luke Della @LukeDella