PROVIDENCE, R.I. – Sometimes, a big loss in the NCAA Tournament can dry the tears up before they really even start, with everyone having plenty of time to absorb the finality of it all.
Not so for the Arizona Wildcats, who lost for the first time in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament under coach Sean Miller, trailing by up to 24 and ultimately losing 65-55 to defensive-minded Wichita State at Dunkin’ Donuts Center on Thursday night.
Not so, especially, for a group of seniors who will never be back and especially not so for senior forward Ryan Anderson, who transferred to Arizona two years ago with the hope of playing one season and tasting, for once, a long NCAA Tournament run. Maybe a championship of some sort.
Didn’t happen. The Wildcats finished their season at 25-9, their worst record since their 2011-12 NIT season, having paid a stiff price for six early departures in the previous three years and a wave of adversity that cost them significant contributions from three regulars and another potential regular: Ray Smith (knee), Kaleb Tarczewski (foot), Allonzo Trier (hand) and Elliott Pitts (off-court issue).
So while seniors Gabe York and Tarczewski were peeled off to the postgame interview podium, Anderson sat in the locker room and barely held back tears through nearly every word.
“I love all these guys,” Anderson said, sniffing. “I love all the coaches. I love everyone involved in this program. It’s just tough when it’s over.”
The same went for Mark Tollefsen, the Wildcats’ ever-upbeat, ever-flexible grad transfer from San Francisco. He, too, came to Arizona for the chance to win things on a bigger level, only to get stuck with seven minutes on the court in the Wildcats’ biggest loss of the season.
“There’s not really many words for this moment,” Tollefsen said. “All the seniors have been through so much. To try to comment on that is so tough. You can’t. So many years and so many years of dedication to the game, and to see it come to an end … it hasn’t kicked in but when it does it’s going to be hard to deal with.”
Then there was Tarczewski, getting a chance to play a game in his native New England for the first time of his career, on the highest stage, and it became his last game.
“No question, we’re going to miss those guys,” Miller said of his seniors. “Their leadership, their character, their resolve. … When you have guys that have worked as hard as they have, no doubt you’ll feel the effects.”
Wichita State improved to 26-8 and into a second-round game against Miami (Fla.) on Saturday.
Not only was it the worst NCAA tournament defeat for Arizona since Miller arrived but also the biggest losing deficit the Wildcats have had in the NCAA Tournament since Louisville beat them by 39 in the 2009 Sweet 16, just before Miller was hired at UA.
It was also the first time Miller has ever lost an NCAA Tournament game by a team seeded more than one line lower. In fact, at both Xavier and Arizona, he had only lost once before to a worse-seeded team — in 2014, when No. 2 Wisconsin beat top-seeded UA in the Elite Eight.
What’s more, the 10-point deficit was the biggest of any Arizona loss this season and the first time they had lost by double digits since Feb. 27, 2013, an 89-78 loss at USC.
While Anderson had eight points and 11 rebounds, Tarczewski collected eight points, 10 rebounds, three blocks and two assists. But half of Tarczewski’s offense came from the free throw line, where he knocked down 4 of 7.
How it all happened was simple, really: Wichita State entered the game with the nation’s most efficient defense, a rugged man-to-man that extends out and occasionally presses, and the Shockers did all of that.
Arizona called a timeout 53 seconds into the game, because a new rule meant they would have only three seconds to get the ball through midcourt after the Wildcats struggled against a press, and it was pretty much downhill from there.
The Wildcats led 7-6 at the first media timeout, but then they missed 11 straight shots, going 10 minutes without a field goal, and that was the knockout punch.
Arizona wound up shooting 41.7 percent for the game, but made just 27.3 percent from the field in the first half and totaled 19 turnovers that led to 22 Wichita State points over both halves.
Point guard Kadeem Allen had seven of those turnovers, finding they began to build on themselves.
“It is mental,” Allen said. “But I didn’t figure that out until it was too late.”
UA had four turnovers in the first 3:03 after halftime, when the Wildcats trailed 31-19, and Wichita State expanded its 12-point halftime lead to 18 by the time Markis McDuffie made a layup that resulted from Conner Frankamp’s block of York.
Shaquille Morris later picked up a foul on Dusan Ristic while dunking, giving Wichita State a 46-27 lead with 13:38 left.
Just when the game appeared to be going out of control, with the Shockers building leads of up to 24 points in the second half, the Wildcats went on an 11-0 run over three and a half minutes to cut Wichita State’s lead to 53-40 with 7:48 left, getting three-pointers from Parker Jackson-Cartwright and York during that stretch.
Arizona managed to cut Providence’s lead to 60-51 with a minute to go but the Shockers held on from there.
That meant four seniors are done with the Wildcats, and Tarczewski will wind up tied as the winningest player in program history at 110.
“After working so hard for so long it definitely feels (lousy) to end like this,” Tarczewski said. “But I’m very proud of everyone that I played with. Especially everyone this year. I know for a fact they’ll take this and it’ll help them in the future.”