SAN DIEGO – The Arizona Wildcats turned back into the defensive machine that propelled them to the No. 1 ranking much of the season on Sunday, coasting into the Sweet 16 with an 84-61 NCAA tournament round-of-32 win over Gonzaga tonight at Viejas Arena.
The Wildcats had played two straight worrisome games, losing the Pac-12 Tournament championship game to UCLA on March 15 and struggling to put away 16th-seeded Weber State on Friday, but had no such trouble Sunday.
They scored eight points on four Gonzaga turnovers in the first five minutes, taking an initial 13-6 lead and the game didn’t change a whole lot after that.
Gonzaga wound up with 21 turnovers that led to 31 UA points, while the Wildcats set a new team record for steals in an NCAA tournament game with 15.
Gonzaga point guard David Stockton, the son of former NBA star John Stockton, had six turnovers while standout guard Kevin Pangos and forward Sam Dower each had four.
The win put Arizona (32-4) into the Sweet 16 for the third time under fifth-year coach Sean Miller, with a rematch against San Diego State set for Thursday at about 7:17 p.m. in Anaheim, Calif., in the West Region semifinal.
The Wildcats beat San Diego State 69-60 at Viejas Arena back on Nov. 14, in only their third game of the regular season and first road game.
UA led 47-34 at halftime and kept on the pressure for much of the second half. Gonzaga cut it to just 11 points early in the second half, 49-38, but then UA kept it scoreless for the next four minutes to take control of the game for good with a 59-38 lead.
Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Aaron Gordon led the Wildcats with 18 points each.
Gordon also had six rebounds to break a 40-year-old freshman record of 278, according to UA’s basketball Twitter account (freshman records are not kept in UA’s media guide).
In the first half, Arizona forced 11 Bulldog turnovers while taking a 47-34 halftime lead.
The Wildcats scored 19 points off Gonzaga’s 11 first-half turnovers, while shooting 50 percent from the field, and taking advantage of an injury to Zags guard Pangos.
Pangos left the game early in visible pain, having appeared to tweak the same sprained toe ligaments that have bothered him much of the season. Pangos returned after five minutes but only scored 12 points after scoring 23 on Friday against Oklahoma State.
Although Gonzaga had trouble hanging on to the ball, it did not have trouble shooting early, as Utah and Colorado did during the Pac-12 Tournament, when each shot less than 30 percent. Gonzaga managed to shoot 48.3 percent from the field and actually outrebounded UA 20-12.
However, the Zags shot just 32.0 percent in the second half to finish at 40.7 percent from the game.
But Arizona shot 50 percent in the first half, getting 12 points each from Hollis-Jefferson and Gordon. The Wildcats hit 4 of 9 three-pointers and, after struggling at the line in two previous games, hit all nine free throws they took.
The Wildcats hounded the Bulldogs early, converting four turnovers into 10 points over the first five minutes while taking an early 13-6 lead. At the same time, Pangos left the game.
Pangos returned with 12 minutes left in the half, after UA had built its lead to 20-11.
Pangos hit a three-pointer soon after entering the game but UA kept on a roll, with Nick Johnson stealing the ball and going coast-to-coast for a layup that gave the Wildcats a 26-14 lead while Gabe York later scored to make it 28-16 with 9:40 left in the half.
Arizona took leads of up to 21 points in the first half but Pangos hit a three pointer with 1:20 left that cut it to 45-32.