SALT LAKE CITY —
Pack up the babies and grab the old ladies and everyone goes, everyone knows, it’s the Brother Lauri Traveling Salvation Show.
Arizona has been delivered from ruin, or, if not that, another first-round NCAA Tournament loss.
Twenty-four years ago this week, in this town, No. 2 seed Arizona lost to No. 15 seed Santa Clara, the darkest day in UA basketball history, or close to it.
But Thursday night, Brother Lauri Markkanen delivered. The Arizona freshman scored 16 points in the first 13 minutes. The No. 2 Wildcats led No. 15 North Dakota 36-24. After that, Sean Miller might’ve thought about putting Neil Diamond at point guard.
But as Arizona has learned over the last 30 years, you can never play enough Nicholls States, Robert Morrises, and Cornells on opening night of the NCAA Tournament.
Whenever you win the opener, whatever the score, you feel good enough to sing.
On Thursday it was a rhyme: Everyone goes cause everyone knows there are soon to be more dangerous foes.
Arizona won 100-82. And although doubt crept in midway through the second half, as UND got as close as 68-61, it was more a testament to the Fightin’ Hawks grit than anything else. Remember: Three years ago as a No. 1 seed, Arizona beat No. 16 Weber State by only 68-59.
Unlike last year’s first-round torment against Wichita State, the Wildcats and their fans love the heck out of this tournament again.
The Fighting Hawks didn’t seem to plan for a long stay in Salt Lake City. They just don’t have enough height. Arizona scored 54 points in the paint, and if that’s not a record, it’s close.
North Dakota didn’t even bring their pep band to the game, which is against NCAA tournament rules. So it hired a band from nearby Davis High School, and maybe someone should’ve given them the sheet music to “Bear Down, Arizona.”
Saturday’s Round of 32 game against Saint Mary’s will be the real thing. The 29-4 Gaels have size and play defense the old fashioned way. They are all elbows and knees, picks and screens. They are not overwhelming but they have the one thing that makes this fine Madness so unpredictable.
They can send you home. North Dakota couldn’t.
Markkanen finished with 20 points in 26 minutes. Rawle Alkins played the perfect (statistical) game. He shot 8-for-8 from the field and 2-for-2 from the foul line, no turnovers. He played with such authority, a force inside, he might’ve created a small earthquake.
“We showed we belong here,” said Alkins, who also hit on Sean Miller’s postgame theme of a less than stellar Arizona defense, saying “We needed to get more stops.”
There isn’t likely to be any complacency in Arizona’s Friday practice and preparation for Saint Mary’s.
“If you give a team 10-for-22 from 3-point line, you’re playing with fire and that’s what they did tonight,” said Miller. “That’s one of the alarming things, something we have to get right Saturday.
“They had two shooters we knew were clearly great shooters, Quinton Hooker and Corey Baldwin. They went 9-for-17. It’s concerning.”
It’s also a good teaching weapon, a get-their-attention for Friday’s Saint Mary’s film sessions.
The appeal of first-round NCAA Tournament games is the same as it was in 1993 when No. 15 Santa Clara somehow beat the No. 2 Wildcats even though Arizona scored 25 consecutive points in the middle of the game.
But North Dakota didn’t have much chance to play that role on Thursday. The resources are overwhelmingly against them to advance. All basketball teams are not created equal.
Coach Brian Jones is paid a flat $100,000 a year. That’s about $3.2 million less than Sean Miller. The Fighting Hawks reported basketball revenues of $1.6 million last year. Arizona revenue was $21.7 million.
That’s almost 20 to 1 and at times Thursday, the talent on the floor seemed like 20 to 1, Arizona.
North Dakota began the season with three consecutive victories. It beat, in order, Crown College of Minnesota, Mayville State of Mayville, North Dakota — the birthplace of Lute Olson — and Presentation College of South Dakota.
When you open the season beating Crown, Mayville and Presentation by a total of 116 points, you don’t lose touch with reality. The Fighting Hawks stood and cheered in the final two minutes, happy dudes, when one of their end-of-the-bench teammates swished a 3-pointer from the corner.
How good is a tournament when the losing team goes home happy, too?
“I’m really proud; it’s been a long time coming,” Hooker said late Thursday night. “It all came together this year. I’m honored.”
The Fighting Hawks are now past tense.
For Arizona, the future is now.