SAN DIEGO — The Arizona Wildcats are heading to their third Sweet 16 in five years, and you could say their No. 1 seed had a lot to do with it.
Not because the Wildcats were able to draw Gonzaga for a third-round game Sunday, destroying the turnover-plagued Bulldogs 84-61 at Viejas Arena. Arizona expected much more from the Zags, after all.
“We probably didn’t catch them on their best night,” UA coach Sean Miller said.
The real advantage of the No. 1 seed, which UA earned by staying atop the national polls and rankings for much of its 32-4 season, was the breathing room they received two days earlier.
That was when Arizona played a scary morning game against Weber State, missing free throws, turning the ball over and failing to shoot straight early.
“We had a mental lapse in the Weber State game,” Rondae Hollis-Jefferson said.
Essentially, they were making the kind of mistakes that might have ended their season with a loss against a better-seeded team.
By Sunday, it was pretty obvious that the Wildcats had all that ironed out pretty well. They scored eight points on four Gonzaga turnovers in the first five minutes, taking a 13-6 lead and the game didn’t change a whole lot after that.
When it was over, Arizona totaled 15 steals, a school record for NCAA tournament games, and scored 31 points off the Zags’ 21 turnovers.
They felt better. A lot better.
“When we’re all locked in, it’s tough to beat us,” center Kaleb Tarczewski said. “Obviously, I think there was a little nervousness coming into the tournament especially for the guys who haven’t been here before.”
The win put Arizona into the Sweet 16 for the third time in Miller’s five seasons, with a rematch against San Diego State set for Thursday at about 7:17 p.m. in Anaheim, Calif.
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.
Several Wildcats said it wasn’t anything they did dramatically different before Sunday’s game. They had their usual preparation, knew what to do.
They just felt more comfortable, and it was obvious.
“I just think we calmed ourselves down after the Weber State game,” guard Gabe York said. “It was more of that we were anxious to play and now we were more ready to play. We were more calm, we were more collected on offense and defense.”
Almost equally comfortable. When the Wildcats weren’t stealing 15 balls or blocking eight shots — with Nick Johnson getting four of the blocks — they were shooting 49.2 percent from the field.
They also had 24 assists for their 32 buckets, with point guard T.J. McConnell dishing six assists without a turnover. And they even hit free throws, 72.2 percent for the game after making all nine they took in the first half.
“Offensively and defensively, we played a complete game,” York said. “I don’t think I can say that about many of our basketball games this year. Either defense is what keeps us within games or extends our lead. But offensively we shot the ball well tonight, took two or three passes to get the better shot.”
As if to prove freshman-style jitters were out of the way, it was Aaron Gordon and Hollis-Jefferson who led the Wildcats offensively with 18 points apiece, Gordon emphatically throwing down 8 of 10 shots while Hollis Jefferson went 5 for 7 from the field and hit all eight free throws he took.
“I saw a lot of windows, a lot of gates and I just took them,” Hollis-Jefferson said. “It’s just about being aggressive out there.”
Defensively, of course, the Wildcats were also aggressive. But their performance was slightly different from how UA stifled Utah and Colorado in the Pac-12 tournament, holding those teams under 30 percent shooting, while the Wildcats just ripped the ball out of the Zags’ hands.
And sometimes the Zags just seemed to hand it over anyway.
“If we played this game over again I don’t think they would turn the ball over” as much, Miller said. “Some of their turnovers were self-inflicted. But our pressure was good and we had a game plan of trying to trap the post, which is easier said than done with that group of players.”
“For the most part I thought our guys were active and played together very hard on defense. The turnovers ignited our transition and we’re always at our best when we can use our defense to (start) our offense, and tonight we scored as many points (26 fast-break points) in that area as we have all season.”
Of Gonzaga’s 21 turnovers, point guard David Stockton, the son of former NBA star John Stockton, had six while standout guard Kevin Pangos and forward Sam Dower each had four.
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.
In the first half, 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 Pangos.
Pangos left the game early in visible pain, having re-injured an ankle, after having previously dealt with sprains to his ankle and toe ligaments all season.
He returned after five minutes but only scored 12 points after scoring 23 on Friday against Oklahoma State, unable to make much of a dent against the Wildcats’ defense.
“We’re having a special year this season,” said guard Jordin Mayes, who is headed to his third Sweet 16. “We know that defense is the key to winning so we go out there and play hard.”