NCAA Notes: Freshmen step after McConnell goes scoreless
SAN DIEGO — Arizona escaped the second round of the NCAA Tournament without its floor general.
The Wildcats’ starting point guard T.J. McConnell scored zero points in Friday’s 68-59 victory over Weber State. It was the transfer from Duquesne’s first ever NCAA Tournament game.
McConnell missed four shot attempts and also missed his only free-throw attempt that came late in the game.
“I struggled a little bit,” McConnell said. “I never was really in the offensive flow, but I think my team did a good job picking me up.”
Arizona junior guard T.J. McConnell (4) tries to move around Weber State senior guard Jordan Richardson (5) during Arizona's 69-58 victory against Weber State in the second round of the NCAA Tournament at Viejas Arena in San Diego on Friday.
The junior specifically pointed to the Wildcats’ freshmen as the guys who carried the team despite his lack of offensive presence.
Forwards Aaron Gordon and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson combined for 29 points on 12-16 shooting. The two freshmen also helped clean up the glass. Surprisingly, the bigger Wildcats team lost the rebounding battle against Weber State. Gordon led the team with eight rebounds, and Hollis-Jefferson was tied for second most with four.
(1) Arizona vs. (8) Gonzaga
When: Sunday, approx. 6:40 p.m. MST/PDT
“They’re relentless players on offense and defense,” McConnell said of the freshmen. “They put our team on their back, and I respect them for that.”
Arizona had a season high-12 blocks Friday.
Sophomore Kaleb Tarczewski and Gordon had five each with Hollis-Jefferson getting the other two. Tarczewski’s five blocks was a career high.
“They’re our anchors down low,” said UA junior guard Nick Johnson. “I think [Gordon and Tarczewski] could have been on our all-conference defensive team because they definitely have helped myself and T.J. and Gabe [York] throughout the year.”
Arizona’s 12 blocks kept Weber State’s leading scorer Davion Berry from having a career game.
Berry finished Friday’s game with 24 points on 5-20 shooting. Many of the Wildcats’ 12 blocks came on drives by Berry.
“Our length around the basket — that’s something that has been good for us all year and it helped us today,” Arizona head coach Sean Miller said.
Gordon, Tarczewski and Hollis-Jefferson were averaging less than one block per game prior to the Wildcats’ second-round victory over Weber State. Last season as a freshman, Tarczewski only had 23 blocks total and averaged .7 per game. Former Wildcat Grant Jerrett was the only Wildcat on last year’s roster to average nearly a whole block per game.
“Kaleb and Aaron have done a great job altering shots and blocking shots and you that today,” Johnson said.
Arizona had another poor showing at the free-throw line.
But its inability to keep Weber State off of the free-throw line hurt it even more.
“If we would have been more disciplined with our fouls and kept them off the line, we would have had an incredible defensive performance,” Miller said.
WSU made four more free throws than Arizona attempted. It also made 87 percent of the ones it attempted. Half of its 20 made free throws came in an eight-minute stretch in the second half, where Arizona saw its 20 point lead nearly collapse.
Gordon has struggled the most at the free-throw line for the Wildcats. Gordon was shooting sub 50 percent at the line prior to Friday’s win. Gordon went 1-4 at the line against Weber State.
“It’s a complete mental thing,” Gordon said of the team and his own free-throw shooting problems. “We’re not making it any bigger than it is; we’re not making it any smaller than it is. We’re just going to go to the line and knock them down.”
First impression of Gonzaga
Right after Arizona bested Weber State, eighth-seeded Gonzaga defeated ninth-seeded Oklahoma State 85-77.
The Bulldogs have a variety of pieces that, put together, make them legitimate Sweet 16 candidates.
Guard Kevin Pangos, who had 26 points against the Cowboys on Friday, is an offensive leader for Gonzaga.
Foul trouble for the OSU and plenty of free throws were the key to the Bulldogs’ eight-point victory over Oklahoma State. The two schools combined for 78 free-throw attempts. Gonzaga shot 26-41 at the free-throw line. The Cowboys made 22-37.
Oklahoma State’s toughness was a good preview for Gonzaga, which will face another physically demanding team in Arizona on Sunday.
The Wildcats’ size presents a frontcourt matchup issue for Gonzaga.
“They’ve had an awesome year,” Bulldogs head coach Mark Few said of Arizona. “Their defense has been off the charts, so that’s probably the biggest thing. They’re rim protectors, and it’s impressive with the frontline.”
— Follow Luke Della @LukeDella