LAHAINA, Hawaii — When the Arizona Wildcats made 19 first-half free throws on top of Justin Coleman’s surging offense, they were in position for a shocking upset over third-ranked Gonzaga in a Maui Invitational semifinal game Tuesday.
The Wildcats led 45-37 at halftime, then 13 early in the second half while Coleman went on to tie his career-high of 28 points. But then, well, things changed in a hurry. Gonzaga’s defense tightened up, its offense gained confidence and the Zags wound up rolling to a 91-74 win.
UA coach Sean Miller and Gonzaga coach Mark Few alike credited defensive switches the Zags made in the second half to both cut down UA’s offense and reduce fouls. Arizona went to the line 22 times in the first half and only eight times in the second.
“It was an adjustment that worked,” Miller said of the Zags’ second half scheme. “We’re not a seasoned group. We’re not a group that’s been through a lot of different things together. We’ll learn from this game and grow from it.”
Arizona dropped to 4-1 and will now play Auburn in the Maui Invitational third-place game on Wednesday at 9:30 p.m. Gonzaga (5-0) will face Duke for the championship.
After scoring 18 points against Iowa State on Monday, Coleman tied his career scoring high set last season against Chattanooga while playing for Samford. He was 7 for 12 from the field and hit a career-high six 3-pointers on nine tries.
Shooting 41.2 percent from the field, Arizona also had 19 points from Brandon Randolph and 15 from Brandon Williams. Rui Hachimura had 24 points for Gonzaga while Norvell added 20 points and 10 rebounds.
The Wildcats led by eight at halftime in part because they made 19 of 22 free throws in the first half, but after UA took a 50-37 lead early in the second half, Gonzaga’s offense cranked up early in the second half on a fast-break dunk by Zach Norvell and UA’s advantage at the free-throw line disappeared.
“They did a heck of a job making adjustments on the fly in the second half,” Few said. "We lost our way a little bit with some silly turnovers and we fouled way too much. We changed some things defensively that really helped keep us out of foul trouble.”
Not only was UA no longer getting regular trips to the free-throw line, but one of the fouls called against the Wildcats early in the second half became a turning point. With 12:03 left and Arizona leading 53-52, Jeter couldn’t get an entry pass, and was called for fouling Gonzaga’s Hachimura under the basket as he fought for it.
Then, as he sprawled on the floor, Jeter looked up and complained to an official. Jeter was whistled for a technical foul, giving him his fourth and fifth fouls to send him out of the game. Not only that, but Gonzaga’s Zach Norvell turned it into a four-point play, making his two technical foul shots and, when the Zags got the ball back afterward, went in for a layup to give Gonzaga a 56-53 lead.
“I think the emotions got the best of Chase,” Miller said. “He has to control his emotions. We’re not a deep team and losing him didn’t help. It really gave them an extra surge in momentum at a very unique time in the game.”
The loss cost Jeter a chance to face Duke in the Maui Invitational final, after Jeter transferred to UA in 2017 after two seasons with the Blue Devils.
Coleman hit a 3-pointer to tie it back up at 56 but the Zags had momentum at that point, while UA was forced to play Ryan Luther at center without Jeter. Gonzaga pulled ahead 71-65 by the time Norvell stole the ball from Coleman and scored a rebound basket on the Zags’ ensuing possession.
“We got tested and pushed to the brink, so that’s a great sign for us,” Few said.
In the first half, Coleman continued his offensive tear with 17 points and Arizona made 19 of 22 free throws to take to a 45-37 halftime lead over.
Williams added 11 points for Arizona in the first 20 minutes, while Hachimura led Gonzaga with nine points and four rebounds.
The Wildcats allowed Gonzaga to shoot 46.4 percent from the field in the first half and were outrebounded 19-16. But UA kept the Zags to just 2-of-11 3-point shooting, while the Wildcats went to the line more often than Gonzaga and took advantage of it.
While UA made 19 free throws in the first 20 minutes, Gonzaga hit 9 of 15, giving the Wildcats 10 more points at the line.
The Wildcats’ defense allowed the Zags to shoot over 50 percent for the first 10 minutes of the half but tightened up late, keeping Gonzaga scoreless for over three minutes.
Arizona built its largest lead, 33-28, after Randolph charged through traffic for a layup with 6:22 left and made it a seven-point lead when Jeter scored inside, prompting Few to call timeout to the wild cheers of the 600 or so UA fans at the Lahaina Civic Center.
Coleman picked up where he left off offensively after scoring a season-high 18 points on Monday against Iowa State. He had 11 points through the first 11 minutes of the game, making 3 of 5 3-pointers he took to that point.
Each of Coleman’s 3s gave UA a lead in a game that changed leads 15 times through the first 12 minutes.
Who: No. 8 Auburn (4-1) vs. Arizona Wildcats (4-1)
Where: Lahaina Civic Center, Maui, Hawaii
What: Maui Invitational third-place game
When: 9:30 p.m. Wednesday
Listen: 1290-AM, 107.5-FM
Probable starters: Arizona
G Justin Coleman (5-10 senior)
G Brandon Williams (6-2 freshman)
F Brandon Randolph (6-6 sophomore)
F Ryan Luther (6-9 senior)
C Chase Jeter (6-10 junior)
Probable starters: Auburn
G Jared Harper (5-11 junior)
G Bryce Brown (6-3 senior)
F Samir Doughty (6-4 junior)
F Anfernee McLemore (6-7 junior)
C Chuma Okeke (6-8 sophomore)
How they match up
Arizona has only played Auburn once before, and it ended the Wildcats’ second appearance in the NCAA Tournament under Lute Olson. The Tigers beat UA 73-63 in Long Beach, Calif., in a first-round game in the 1986 NCAA Tournament.
How they got here
Eighth-ranked Auburn beat Xavier 88-79 in overtime on Monday to advance to the winner’s bracket of the Maui Invitational then lost to Duke 78-72 on Tuesday in the semifinals. All five Duke starters scored in double figures and the Blue Devils held the Tigers to just 36.4-percent shooting. Arizona beat Iowa State 71-66 on Monday and lost to Gonzaga 91-74 on Tuesday.
Like Arizona, Auburn was one of the initial programs impacted by the federal investigation into college basketball and the effects continue. Projected starting forward Danjel Purifoy remains suspended after he was connected to the investigation, while former assistant coach Chuck Person is scheduled to stand trial in February.
However, unlike Arizona, the investigation didn’t come on top of losing all five starters. Auburn has three starters back from a team that tied for the SEC title last season, and the Tigers remain deep and skilled, returning an all-SEC backcourt in point guard Jared Harper and shooting guard Bryce Brown.
It boasts a frontcourt that is physical but also athletic. Forward Anfernee McLemore is a rugged rim protector while 230-pound Chuma Okeke is a strong rebounder and defender. Off the bench, forward Austin Wiley is working his way back after he also missed last season when he was also connected to the federal investigation. Wiley was rated a five-star talent out of high school, and is quick and skilled for his 6-11 frame.
He said it
“Only one team will win all three games and then I think the rest of us will take what we did and then either build from it, learn from it and grow. But Auburn's exceptional. They're a team that I think can go deep in the NCAA Tournament. And Gonzaga's that way, Duke's that way, so for us I think sharing the ball, seeing if we could have a little bit more balanced attack and defending a very, very strong team in transition as well.” — UA coach Sean Miller
Key player: Jared Harper
A second-team all-SEC pick last season, Harper is fast and makes quick decisions with the ball, able to pass well to open players or find his own shot, and he knows how to get to the free-throw line often. He had 22 points with six assist and two turnovers against Duke, though four of his shots were blocked.
Key player: Justin Coleman
Already scheduled to play at Alabama with the Wildcats next month, Coleman gets a bonus game against a home-state team and just in time. The grad transfer point guard is on a roll offensively, averaging 23 points in two Maui games and his size and style are an ideal matchup for Harper.
A little help, please
Over its first four games, Arizona averaged 12.8 assists, a total of 51 on their 113 made field goals, meaning they had an assist for 45.1 of their made shots.
The Wildcats had only three assists on Tuesday against Gonzaga. Brandon Williams had two of them and Justin Coleman had the other one; both had three turnovers to accompany them.
“Three assists? That’s tough, man,” UA coach Sean Miller said. “There's not a lot of good basketball being played when you only have three assists.”
But Miller also credited the Bulldogs for some of the problem.
“I think what their defense did is they created a (need to) drive out of desperation, drive to shoot, drive to score,” Miller said. “You have to move the ball, you have to share the ball and you have to be able to find open teammates. But that's as much to Gonzaga's credit as it is to our detriment. They were clearly the better team and especially in the second half. I mean, (Gonzaga’s scoring edge) was 54-29 in the second half, I think that's really all you need to know.”
Arizona now has assisted its field goals only 39.6 percent of the time, the 29th lowest percentage in Division I.
So Justin Coleman had a season-high 18 points against Iowa State on Monday, and then tied his career-high with 28 points on Tuesday against Gonzaga.
He was the same guy postgame.
“I just play my game and I just took the open shots that I had,” Coleman said. “And my teammates played a big part in that, they created shots for me and also they had to guard Brandon Williams who also led the team in scoring the first four games. That just helped my game get a lot easier.”
Purifoy still sitting
For as much as the federal investigation impacted Arizona’s recruiting, the Wildcats have not had a player suspended as a result. But Auburn sat out two projected starters last season, Purifoy and Wiley, while Purifoy remains suspended for the Tigers’ first nine games this season.
The initial federal complaint against Person alleged that he said on camera that he paid family members of Purifoy ($7,500) and Wiley ($11,000) with the intent to steer them to a financial advisor. After both players sat out last season, the NCAA ruled that Purifoy would have to sit out nine games this season.
“We worked diligently with the NCAA on behalf of both our student-athletes who were ineligible this season,” Auburn president Steve Leath said in a statement, via to the Montgomery Advertiser. “The process was arduous, but it was important that we do everything we could to put Danjel Purifoy and Austin Wiley in the best position to resume their Auburn basketball careers. We're happy for them and their teammates and coaches."
More second-chance points Arizona gave up to Gonzaga (16 to 2).
Points on average that UA’s two Maui Invitational opponents have outscored them by in the paint.
Auburn’s ranking in Kenpom’s “minutes continuity,” a complex measure of meaningful experience that calculates how many minutes are being played by the same players who logged significant minutes from the previous season. Auburn’s ranking is unusually high for a high-major team and third-highest among ranked teams (No. 22 Buffalo is sixth in minutes continuity and No. 20 Iowa is 25th).