SALT LAKE CITY - Once they finished damaging a lot of trendy tournament brackets Thursday, several Arizona Wildcats and their coach said they really didn't mind that a lot of folks said they were supposed to lose.
And why not? All of the upset picks meant that leading up to their defensively driven 81-64 victory over Belmont in their NCAA tournament opener, the Wildcats didn't just hear warnings from Sean Miller and his staff about the Bruins.
They heard it from everybody. On television, in person, on Twitter, Facebook, you name it: Eleventh-seeded Belmont, officially a four-point underdog, was a favorite in the public eye.
"It was a little bit of a motivator," forward Solomon Hill said. "Especially with the social media stuff."
Hill said the Wildcats didn't really need outside sources to tell them what the Bruins could do, that Belmont was one of the country's most efficient offensive teams and made 38.6 percent of its three-point shots.
But the reinforcement couldn't hurt, either, and the Wildcats played early like a team determined to stop exactly what the Bruins do best: Arizona allowed Belmont exactly one field goal over the first nine minutes of the game, while the Bruins missed 10 others during that span.
Arizona also wiped Belmont all but off the boards early and often, with a 27-9 rebounding advantage in the first half that became 44-18 for the game.
After those first tone-setting nine minutes, Arizona led 11-4 and, while the Wildcats let up defensively at times during the rest of the game, they never trailed. Arizona led by 12 at halftime and up to 21 points in the second half while coasting into a third-round game Saturday against Harvard at 3:10 p.m. Saturday
"Our players locked in on what we were trying to do and played great defense, especially in the first half," UA coach Sean Miller said. "As the game wore on, we really got the ball inside, and as we got the ball inside a lot of good things followed."
It wasn't always easy. Even though Belmont was clearly undersized, having no starter within five inches of 7-footer Kaleb Tarczewski, the Bruins aggressively swarmed UA big men when they had the ball.
While Tarczewski had 12 points and eight rebounds, he struggled with fouls and fouled out after 20 minutes played.
"There were definitely some things we could take advantage of size-wise but it's tough during the course of the same," Tarczewski said. "Belmont's a good team. They're not going to let us just get the ball inside every time easily. They had good help to try to trap the post, but when we did get the ball in there, we did great things."
Meanwhile, on the perimeter, Miller found the Bruins were trying to keep the ball out of the post in the first place - but that left guard Mark Lyons with a spread-out court to operate in. Lyons came through with a game-high 23 points on 8-for-15 shooting.
"We tried to put Mark in a position to use the ball screen with the court wide open and he took advantage of it," Miller said. "It's something he's good at, and he did a really good job."
While Lyons led the Wildcats in scoring, he had only one assist to two turnovers, and that's where Nick Johnson filled in. The Wildcats' sophomore combo guard had five assists to only two turnovers, while scoring 12 points - and helping limit Belmont gunner Ian Clark to 1 of 5 three-point shooting in the first half.
However, this being Arizona, it was all really good for the Wildcats only part of the time. Clark heated up in the second half, finishing with 21 points on 8-for-14 shooting, and the Wildcats allowed the Bruins to shoot 54.2 percent in the second half after holding them to 25.9 percent in the first half.
While that wasn't as alarming as the 55.8 percent Arizona allowed Cal to shoot in the second half on Feb. 10 - because the Bears wound up winning that game, which ultimately cost the Wildcats heavily in the Pac-12 race and NCAA seeding - it was an alarm nevertheless.
All season long, the Wildcats have put together halves of completely varying defensive efforts, and the further they go in the NCAA tournament, the less room for error there may be.
"Our effort wasn't there in the second half," Hill said. "Guys were looking toward the scoreboard. We've gotta be able to put away teams like that. We had them by 20 and we didn't keep it up."
Arizona went on a 9-1 run to finish the first half, led 32-20 at halftime, and went on a 9-3 run to start the second before letting up.
The Bruins pulled within 64-53 with less than six minutes left after hitting two three-pointers within seven seconds, thanks to a turnover on the inbounds pass from Brandon Ashley. From there, the Wildcats hung on and never let their lead slip into single digits.
Their effort wasn't perfect, wasn't consistent, but it was, well … exactly why so many people picked Belmont to win in the first place.
"Why wouldn't they pick against us?" forward Kevin Parrom said. "We've been inconsistent throughout the whole year, and haven't always played great. But we stepped up today, and that's why we won."
More on StarNet
• Find our basket-by-basket breakdown of Arizona's season online at azstarnet.com/ArizonaStats
• Find more photos from Arizona's rout of Belmont on Thursday at azstarnet.com/gallery
• West Region, third round: No. 6 Arizona vs. No. 14 Harvard
• Where: Salt Lake City
• When: 3:10 p.m. Saturday
• TV; radio: TNT; 1290-AM, 107.5-FM