SALT LAKE CITY — The Arizona Wildcats have earned another Sweet 16 trip to Southern California but figuratively, at least, they’re heading much further away.
The Wildcats, who blew away Harvard 74-51 in an NCAA tournament game Saturday to reach the NCAA West Region semifinals Thursday in Los Angeles, can almost picture themselves back on the beach in Honolulu.
A little Christmas Eve barbeque, some team bonding… and two big wins over Miami and San Diego State that helped define that early swagger they lost during Pac-12 Conference play.
Arizona has now reached the Sweet 16 for the third time in five seasons — and their second to Southern California in three seasons — but they also, perhaps more importantly, may have reached the level of teamwork, defense and overall success they did in the Diamond Head Classic.
That vibe is coming back.
“It kind of feels like San Diego State,” forward Solomon Hill said. “Guys are really buying into things and letting the offense come. When we all focus on defense, it all helps our offense as well.”
For the second straight game, the Wildcats revolved their game around defense. Mark Lyons tied his career high with 27 points, in large part by darting off ball screens again, but it was the defensive end where UA dominated.
Harvard missed its first 13 field goals and shot just under 28 percent both from three-point territory and overall. They had entered the game shooting 40.3 percent, and hit 44.4 percent against New Mexico in their 68-62 upset win on Thursday.
But the Wildcats also knew, at least early, it wasn’t all about them. While Harvard hit two jumpers and a three-pointer to get in front of New Mexico 7-2, they missed two threes and three other jumpers in the first five minutes.
Many of them were relatively uncontested.
“We kind of lucked out,” guard Nick Johnson said. “They hit those shots against New Mexico, and that’s what kept them in the game. I’d say the first three minutes of the game, we probably gave them too many open looks, but after that I’d say we really tightened up our defense.”
UA coach Sean Miller said the Wildcats did a good job of keeping quick players on Harvard gunner Laurent Rivard, who went 1 for 6 from three-point territory after making 5 of 9 against New Mexico.
In a physical game in which UA was whistled for 20 fouls and lost both Kevin Parrom and Brandon Ashley to foul outs, the Wildcats never let up the intensity much. Hill made sure of it by sticking a couple of early daggers in them to give UA a 30-9 lead with 8:06 left.
Hill first made a three-pointer in the corner — making sure to celebrate while looking at the floor, after he was called for a technical as he celebrated a three pointer on Thursday against Belmont — and then took a rebound coast-to-coast for an emphatic dunk.
“I just wanted to stay aggressive,” Hill said. “We’re not going to just sit back and let you take the driver’s seat.”
Lyons, meanwhile, is always aggressive, so maybe it was not much of a surprise that he was able to total a career-high 27 points often by coming off ball screens the Crimson could not deal with.
“My teammates got me great shots,” Lyons said. “It wasn’t individual plays that got me shots and things like that. It was drive and kicks, back screens, back screen lobs, and Jordin (Mayes) throwing the pass and great screens from Solomon.”
Lyons scored on back-to-back possessions in the first half, to give UA a 34-15 lead, when Hill screened and Mayes fed Lyons with the assist.
It was “just to stall the defense,” Hill said. “They didn’t attack the gaps, so when Mark made the pass, I saw an open possession to screen his guy and my guy didn’t help — and we got the lob.”
The only trouble the Wildcats had in the first half was when forward Grant Jerrett suffered elbow and nerve damage while falling after a layup attempt. Jerrett was scheduled to have an X-ray upon returning to Tucson late Saturday night and his status was unclear.
After leading 40-22 at halftime, Arizona never trailed by fewer than 14 points in the second half, despite being without Jerrett and, eventually, also without Kevin Parrom and Brandon Ashley, who fouled out.
Officials stopped the game early in the second half for video review after Kevin Parrom hit Kiyani Chambers in the mouth while defending the pass, and knocked Chambers’ tooth out. Parrom also cut his right elbow on the play, but no flagrant foul was called.
“I saw Christian (Webster) on the wing,” Chambers said, “and I tried to throw it to him, went up in the air, came down, and before I knew it, my tooth was out.”
The rest of the second half was almost irrelevant. UA hung on to double-digit leads, was able to cope with the foul outs, and even played guard Gabe York for four minutes while walk-ons earned the final two.
They were a team, again. Maybe for the first time in three months.
“It’s like December,” Johnson said. “But we’ve played with each other a little more so we have a little bit more understanding of where people are going to be and what they’re going to do. So it might be a little bit better.”