TUCSON — With 3.3 seconds remaining in overtime Gonzaga’s Byron Wesley stepped to the foul line with a chance to tie the game at 66. He had three free throws after being fouled by Arizona’s Elliott Pitts. A 76 percent shooter from the charity stripe up to that point, the graduate transfer from USC looked to be a solid bet for the visiting Bulldogs.
The first attempt … airball. The second bounced off the back of the rim. Wesley would miss the third on purpose, but Arizona corralled the rebound. Final score: Arizona 66, Gonzaga 63.
That final sequence will be the one that draws most of the attention, but it was Arizona’s stifling defense and the late-game play of senior point guard T.J. McConnell that proved to be the differences.
Gonzaga made just one field goal over the final 9:05 of the game, with that shot being a heavily-challenged Kevin Pangos three-pointer with 1:58 remaining in overtime. Arizona’s been one of the nation’s best defensive teams in each of the last two seasons, and that distinction has helped Sean Miller’s team rack up wins despite having issues on the other end of the floor.
A huge key to what Arizona was able to do defensively was the play of sophomore Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, who is one of the nation’s most versatile defenders.
Hollis-Jefferson spent time defending both Kyle Wiltjer and Domantas Sabonis for large stretches of the game, and Arizona’s decision to switch ball screens led to his defending the Gonzaga guards at times as well. But his best work was saved for crunch time, as Hollis-Jefferson was given the unenviable task of defending Kevin Pangos.
With the senior guard held under wraps, Gonzaga struggled mightily to find quality looks down the stretch.
“Rondae is one of the nation’s great defenders,” Miller noted. “When you think about it, he guarded Pangos and he’s 6-foot-7. The lion’s share of the biggest moments of the game, Rondae was on Kevin Pangos and he did a really good job of just making the game hard. So that if he makes a shot, and he made a big one, it’s a contested, tough shot.
“But that’s one of the strengths of our team. We won today’s game because of great defense.”
Offensively, two players stood out for Arizona in a game that was a slugfest throughout thanks to the defensive ability of both teams. One was forward Brandon Ashley, whose ability to score either inside or out not only opens things up for himself but for his teammates as well. Ashley’s production forced Gonzaga’s hand defensively in the second half, with Wiltjer being taken off the floor for large stretches in favor of Sabonis.
And then there’s McConnell. While he may not be the smoothest offensive player, with a “jumper” that’s closer to a set shot, when the chips are down he’s the leader the Wildcats trust. McConnell scored all six of Arizona’s points in overtime, finishing with 12 points. On both ends of the floor McConnell made plays, and his tenacity is something that has paid dividends for Arizona in both games and practices.
“T.J. has the personality of a winner,” Miller said. “He has a resiliency, a toughness that isn’t fake. If you watch us practice he’s our hardest worker and he brings it every day. It’s one of the reasons why I think Parker [Jackson-Cartwright] is getting better, because he plays against a tireless worker every day.
“He sets the tone for a lot of good things that happen for our team.”