LOS ANGELES — With both teams not playing anywhere near their best in the first half, it was appropriate that No. 2 Arizona and No. 6 Xavier went into the locker room tied at 28 apiece. The second half was just as tight, but it was the Wildcats who were able to make the plays their needed to make as the game progressed.
Sean Miller’s team won by the final score of 68-60, setting up a rematch with No. 1 Wisconsin in Saturday’s West regional final.
T.J. McConnell, who struggled in the first half, rebounded in the second with 13 points, three assists and just one turnover. And while big man Kaleb Tarczewski did manage to grab nine rebounds in the first half, he couldn’t get much done when it came to finishing around the basket. Things turned around in the second half for the 7-foot junior, as he scored ten points and finished with 12 points and 12 rebounds.
Tarczewski was effective in his job on both ends of the floor, as his defense was good enough to keep Xavier’s Matt Stainbrook from helping his teammates find shots. While Stainbrook finished with 17 points and ten rebounds, just one of those boards was offensive and he also also finished with just two assists. Those contributions may be overlooked by many, but not by Tarczewski’s head coach.
“Kaleb is the one guy on our team who doesn’t get enough credit,” Miller said of his starting center. “A lot of times he’s not our leading scorer, and we have a balanced group, so our leading scorer a lot of times gets the credit for playing or the reason we won. But he does his job, is how I would describe him.
“There aren’t many front-court players that can play Stainbrook one-on-one like he did. Now, Stainbrook had his moments, and if you look 17-10 is a great night. But he had one offensive rebound, and one of the strategies for us is we didn’t want him to provide 10 to 20 points for his teammates.”
A key for Arizona in the second half was better shot discipline against Xavier’s defensive looks, be it man to man or a 1-3-1 zone defense that gave the Wildcats fits in the first stanza. Using a look that Oregon State was able to successfully use against the Wildcats in a win earlier this season. Xavier was able to make Arizona tentative offensively, with the Wildcats settling for jump shots with many of them being challenged.
Thirteen of Arizona’s 32 shots were three-pointers in the first half, with the resulting percentage of shots taken from three (40.6 percent) was much too high for Sean Miller’s team. Entering Thursday just under 26 percent of Arizona’s shots were three-pointers, and they also weren’t all that effective hitting the offensive glass. That changed in the second half, as Arizona both committed to attacking off the dribble more and performing better on the glass.
“We drew it up in the sand halfway through the year because we thought our foot speed was really slow with our bigs, and we won a lot of games with that defense,” Mack said of the 1-3-1. “But a great team adjusts. They were driving it more than we’ve seen. In the first half they were a little bit hesitant. They missed a few shots. They held on to the ball a little bit longer.
“In the second half, they rebounded it and they also drove it a little bit more than we were used to. But we felt like we needed to play it as much as we could to win the game.”
Arizona also had adjustments to make defensively, as the tandem of Matt Stainbrook and Jalen Reynolds was a major factor (16 points combined) in the first half. Their physicality played a role in Xavier scoring 22 of its 28 points in the paint, which kept the Musketeers in the game despite poor perimeter shooting. In the second half Arizona limited the Musketeers to 12 points in the paint and won the battle on the boards, with Stainbrook picking up three fouls over a span of 51 seconds in the second half (6:18 to 5:27) serving as a needed catalyst in that regard.
“We were getting out-rebounded the whole game,” Stanley Johnson, who finished with 12 points and six rebounds, said after the game. “The first war, which is the first four minutes of the second half, we got out-rebounded by five.
“I think [Stainbrook’s] out of the game, and having a 270-pound body out of the way, we started getting rebounds and we got the advantage on the boards. That’s been the story of the season for us; when we defend and rebound, it’s hard to beat us.”
Defense and rebounding have served as barometers for Arizona all season long, and that will be the case Saturday afternoon against Wisconsin as well. The good news for Arizona moving forward is that they’ve likely seen zone for the last time this season, but the keys offensively remain the same. The Wildcats can’t settle for shots, something they did for most of the first 30 minutes against Xavier, if they’re to avenge last year’s Elite Eight defeat at the hands of the Badgers.