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Wildcats season comes to a close in heart-wrenching fashion

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Courtney Talak | The Daily Wildcat Arizona head coach Sean Miller reacts to a call during their Sweet 16 matchup against Xavier on Thursday, March 23. Wildcats lost to Xavier Musketeers 73-71.

SAN JOSE, Calif.–The Arizona Wildcats men’s basketball season came to a close on Thursday night. The Xavier Musketeers defeated the Wildcats 73-71 in a thrilling Sweet Sixteen matchup.

Sean O’Mara’s layup with 40 seconds remaining ended up being the winning basket for Xavier, who now moves on to face Gonzaga in the Elite Eight. Xavier head coach Chris Mack drew up the play for O’Mara, and it worked to perfection.

“I opted to go with a little bit of a quicker play, and that one worked for us earlier in the game,” Mack said. “We felt like they didn’t press us, so [Quentin Goodin] was able to get the ball near half court because we wanted to go two for one down the stretch. Fortunately, [O’Mara] was able to catch a great pass by [Trevon Bluiett] and put it in through all that traffic and gave the guys a boost of confidence.”

The Wildcats held the lead late in the contest thanks to big contributions from there veterans but were unable to come up with a clutch shot in the final seconds.

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For the second straight game, Allonzo Trier had a huge second half. After scoring all 14 of his points in the second half against Saint Mary’s College in the Wildcats’ second-round game, he recorded 15 of his 19 points against Xavier in the final 20 minutes.

With 7:06 to go, the Musketeers led 61-57 and had Arizona on its heels. Trier proceeded to score on Arizona’s next two possessions to tie things up, but he wasn’t done.

Trier gave the Wildcats a 64-61 lead with a 3-point shot from the right wing, giving the Wildcats all the momentum.

Kadeem Allen hit a 3 the next time down for Arizona, and a pair of Parker Jackson-Cartwright free throws the following possession stretched the lead to 69-61. The 12-0 run came right when Arizona needed it, but the Musketeers had one final push left in them.

The Musketeers went on a 10-2 of their own, and with 50 seconds to go, it was a 71-71 ballgame.

O’Mara’s layup sealed it with under a minute left, and the Musketeers advanced.

“We couldn’t get a couple of stops down the stretch, and they hit a couple big 3’s,” Allen said. “It hurts. We just lost to a very good team; you can’t take that from them. We fought, we never gave up, [but] they came up with a win.”

After the first 20 minutes, there was barely separation between the teams, but the Wildcats held a slim 37-35 lead.

The Wildcats were able to jump to a quick 10-2 lead thanks to big man Dusan Ristic. Ristic had 7 of his 9 first-half points in the first five minutes. Ristic lead all Wildcat scorers.

The Musketeers’ Tyrique Jones, who stands at 6-foot-9, had trouble stopping Ristic down low, and the Wildcats were able to control the game early.

Everything was going according to the Wildcats’ game plan except for Allen. The senior picked up two early fouls and had to exit the game. He would only play five minutes in the first half, and it allowed Xavier’s Trevon Bluiett to continue his hot streak.

“One thing that really hurt us in this game is Kadeem picked up two fouls early on,” said Arizona head coach Sean Miller. “He means so much to our defense that we really almost played the entire first half without him. And although we were up two, not having him out there hurt our team.”

After scoring 29 points in Xavier’s dismantling of No. 3-seed Florida State last weekend, Bluiett scored 18 points in the first half and started off 7-7. Allen was guarding him to begin the game, but the Wildcats struggled to defend him with Allen on the bench. 

Bluiett finished with 25 points and he tied the game up with a pair of free throws at the 1:53 mark. Bluiett was a freshman on the 2015 Xavier team that fell to Arizona in the Sweet 16 and he made sure he was at his best on Thursday. 

“It feels good ... just to be able to kind of get that revenge that we have been looking for and to ... make it to the Elite Eight,” Bluiett said. “It’s been a while since the program has done it, and just to get back there it’s a surreal feeling.”

Arizona outrebounded Xavier 35-27 and had 14 offensive rebounds, but the Musketeers shot 56 percent in the second half, while the Wildcats struggled to find a constant rhythm all night.

Allen scored eight points in his final collegiate game and played all 20 minutes in the second half after being limited to five in the first half because of foul trouble. Miller has mentioned all year along Allen’s importance to the team, and he summarized his feelings about Allen’s career in the postgame press conference. 

“There’s never been anybody—and we’ve had some great players, great kids at Xavier and Arizona—that means more to me, that embodies the good in college basketball, than Kadeem Allen,” Miller said. “And that’s always the hardest part when you know that his time is up.”

Arizona finished the 2016-2017 season 32-5. Every year expectations are for the program to make it back to the Final Four, and this year was no different. As tough as it is for Tucsonans everywhere, Miller summed up his thoughts about this year’s season:

“Well, it’s never easy when it ends, especially if you have a great team or had a great season,” Miller said. “I think it’s always important, especially as the leader of our team and program, that we define our own success.  I think if you’re a team that is 32-5, you win both the Pac-12 regular season and also the Pac-12 Tournament and our journey ends in the Sweet Sixteen, it’s hard to look at that as not getting it done or [having failed].”

The 2017 NCAA Tournament continues this weekend, and the West regional final between the Gonzaga Bulldogs and Xavier Musketeers will be played on Saturday at 3:09 p.m. MST.


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