SAN DIEGO — Despite a few minor bumps in the road, Arizona won its first two NCAA tournament games and earned its 16th Sweet Sixteen after defeating Gonzaga on Sunday in the Round of 32.
While the top-seeded Wildcats controlled the pace of the 84-61 victory over the Bulldogs, that was not the case on Friday against Weber State, when the UA looked like a completely different team.
On Friday, Arizona fell into an early seven-point deficit and allowed WSU to claw its way back over the final 10 minutes — seeing it tighten what was at first a 21-point deficit to nine.
“No one knows more than I do how bad I struggled against Weber State,” junior point guard T.J. McConnell said. “Coach [Sean] Miller and I had a talk and my teammates told me to go out there and play like I can. … That’s what I did.”
After failing to score a single point in Friday’s contest, McConnell scored 12 points on Sunday.
In the first game of his first career NCAA Tournament appearance, McConnell shot 0-for-4 from the floor and turned the ball over twice as Arizona struggled to secure a respectable win over a No. 16 seed.
However, against Gonzaga, McConnell sunk three of his four attempts from beyond the arc, was 4-for-8 from the field overall, dished out a game-high six assists and added three steals in the 23-point triumph.
“I just think we got all of the jitters out,” freshman forward Rondae Hollis-Jefferson said. “T.J. was a little jittery and that sort of got [the whole team] a little jittery last game. I think he was more ready to play tonight, and he definitely had a big game for us.”
Hollis-Jefferson said that McConnell never fails to get the team hyped up in the right situations.
Sophomore center Kaleb Tarczewski said McConnell is one of Arizona’s quintessential on-court leaders.
“T.J. is our floor general,” Tarczewski said. “When he’s playing well, everyone is playing well. … When he’s at his best, our team is at our best, and he was at his best tonight.”
When asked about his performance after Sunday’s game, McConnell passed the recognition to his teammates and said that all of the credit goes to them.
“They made me look good,” McConnell said.
On Sunday, the Wildcats took advantage of 21 turnovers by the Bulldogs, scoring 31 points off of them. Arizona managed to cut its turnover total from Friday in half and only committed six, leading to two points for Gonzaga, and allowing the Wildcats to take better control of the game.
“The turnovers ignited our transition, and we’re always at our best when we can use our defense,” head coach Sean Miller said. “Tonight we scored as many points in that area as we have all season long.”
—Follow Evan Rosenfeld @EvanRosenfeld17