Arizona is headed to the Sweet 16 for the 16th time in school history after dominating Gonzaga in an 84-61 victory Sunday night at Viejas Arena.
The Wildcats’ defense was suffocating. Their offense was stunning. It was just what Arizona coach Sean Miller wanted to see from his Cats — and he’ll get to see them at least one more time, as Arizona, the top seed in the West Region, will take on San Diego State in Anaheim on Thursday.
The Wildcats (32-4) played about as well as they have all year against eighth-seeded Gonzaga, with the performance earning them their third Sweet 16 appearance in Miller’s five years at Arizona.
Unlike Thursday, when Arizona allowed 16th-seeded Weber State to hang around, the Cats ran away from the Zags in the very one-sided game.
"It was about staying on the gas pedal," said Arizona freshman wing Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, who pushed seemingly every time he had the ball. He and fellow freshman Aaron Gordon led five UA players in double figures with 18 points. Hollis-Jefferson also had five assists and four blocks, and Gordon added six assists and four steals.
"Tonight was one of our season’s best performances, and obviously we all want to play well in the NCAA tournament," Miller said.
Arizona was too tall, too athletic, too pesky and too powerful at both ends of the court. The Cats came in more waves than the nearby Pacific Ocean. It was the third game in four in which the Wildcats’ offense matched their in-your-face defense. And when that happens, they go from pretty good to nearly unbeatable.
"It takes a lot of pressure off of our ability to win, (because) you want to be good on both," Miller said of the offense matching the defense. "We just don’t want to aspire to be just good on defense. We want to be good on offense and defense. For us to continue to win this tournament, we’re going to have to do that."
They certainly did Sunday night in dominating the West Coast Conference champion Bulldogs. It was a rout from the start, as Arizona took control five minutes in on a T.J. McConnell 3-pointer that made it 16-9 and eventually led 47-34 at halftime. Arizona shot 49 percent and hit 13 of 18 free throws.
"It’s hard for us to get beat when we play defense the way we have and then also shoot the ball as well as we have," said guard Gabe York, who had 11 points.
York said he still thinks back to the California game, a contest in which Arizona shot 32 percent and was dealt its first loss after forward Brandon Ashley went down with a season-ending injury.
"That was the game where it allowed us to realize, ‘What if we shot 40 percent? We would have won by 10?’" he said. "What if we shot 50 percent? We would have won by 15. Ever since that game, we got more offense."
And when Arizona gets the offense to match the typically dominant defense, it looks a lot like a Final Four team.
If Aaron Gordon wasn’t holding a person dunk contest, Nick Johnson was hitting jumpers or Hollis-Jefferson was bullying his way inside for easy baskets.
"We noticed that they weren’t getting back as well they should have," Gordon said. "We kept that going throughout the entire game."
"This team hangs its hat on defense, and we don’t base it on playing well on offense," said Arizona assistant coach Damon Stoudamire, who helped lead the Wildcats to a Final Four appearance in 1994 with a similar fast-and-furious team. "When it’s not going well offensively, we can go with the defense. It’s been like that all season."
"It just takes us to another level … that’s all," Stoudamire said.
That’s all? It’s more than enough.
Stoudamire, who has seen and played a lot of ball, said teams have a hard time simulating in practice what Arizona can do.
"Until you play against it, you don’t know how quick and how fast the players actually are," Stoudamire said. "It just seemed like we were one step ahead of Gonzaga."
And that was before Johnson swatted away what looked like an easy layup with 11:41 left. It was also moment before Gordon flew through the air for an offensive rebound and slammed it home.
"We ran into a buzzsaw tonight," said Few. "That is an excellent basketball team … as good defensively as we’ve seen in a long time."
Added Gonzaga guard Kevin Pangos: "The pace of the game was a little faster, but we also didn’t do a good job. We gave them confidence to turn it over, and they got out and ran and it was a highlight reel."
Confidence? Yes, there was plenty of that. When McConnell hit his second straight 3-pointer with Arizona in control, Miller applauded and smiled. It was the coach’s seal of approval.
"No one knows more than I do how bad I struggled against Weber State, and Coach Miller and I had a talk, and my teammates told me to go out there and play like I can, and that’s what I did," said McConnell, who had 12 points and six assists.
Everyone did. And with that, it’s on to the Sweet 16.