McConnell wills Arizona into Elite Eight

LOS ANGELES — And the magic continues for Arizona and senior T.J. McConnell.

Nearby Hollywood producers would be proud. Script writers are taking notes.

Arizona’s senior — a guy who started out at Duquesne and is now making memories and history — once again had the right moves and made the right decisions in the second half to help second-seeded Arizona get by sixth-seeded Xavier, 68-60, to advance to the Elite Eight in back-to-back years.

Arizona will face the West Region’s top-seed, Wisconsin, on Saturday here at Staples Center.

"It’s going to be a great game," Arizona coach Sean Miller said.

But first it took another great game from McConnell, who put Arizona on his shoulders and led the way for a second straight game. It took until the second half but he did it nonetheless and scored 13 points after halftime.

Every basket mattered. Every decision mattered.

Last week, he became just the sixth player to record 15 points, five rebounds and five assists in an NCAA tournament game. He did it again against Xavier with 17 points, six rebounds and five assists, adding a block and a steal.

Kaleb Tarczewski called McConnell the "rock of our team, the leader."

Arizona 68, Xavier 60

There’s never been a doubt. McConnell willed his team to win, much like he did last week. With just under 10 minutes to play, he hit a jumper to give Arizona its first lead of the second half, 47-46. Less than two minutes later, he hit another jumper to keep the Wildcats within striking distance, 49-51. When he sank two free throws with 6:11 left it tied the score. Two minutes later, his first 3-pointer put Arizona on its way, 58-54.

"When he takes the big one, it seems to go in," Miller said of McConnell’s shot. "I think that reveals a lot of his character."

It also provided some wiggle room for what turned out to be a birthday to remember. McConnell turned 23 on Wednesday. The victory may have been the best present he’s ever received — though the bicycle he got when he was 8 was pretty cool, he said.

McConnell’s first half, though, wasn’t one he wants to remember. He said it was as though he was "practically playing for Xavier with how much I was throwing them the ball."

He fixed that just in time. No cape needed.

"I’m determined not to let it end and I don’t want it to end," McConnell said. "We’re kind of playing with the mentality of refuse to lose and do whatever it takes."

The 1997 national championship team took on the same motto behind the play of Miles Simon. Eighteen years later there’s a bit of déjà vu.

"A lot of teams would have folded in our position tonight, but we showed a lot of heart and resiliency," McConnell said. "And big players made big-time plays and I’m proud of all my teammates."

Freshman Stanley Johnson added 12 points, as did Tarczewski, who also had 12 rebounds. Arizona had eight turnovers, three in the second half.

Xavier coach Chris Mack called McConnell’s basket to put the Wildcats up 51-49 a "backbreaker" because he got his own rebound and then hit the shot. Of course he did. All year he’s done things like that.

"There’s not so much we can say about (McConnell) that we haven’t said to this point," said Brandon Ashley. "We know exactly what we’re going to get out of TJ; he’s going to give us his all, all the time.

"He’s a great competitor and he runs this team. Without him we wouldn’t be in the position we are today."

Damon Stoudamire, now an assistant coach, led Arizona to the Final Four in 1994 and said McConnell raised his level of play the past six weeks.

"He’s making his own legacy," Stoudamire said. "He’s not like us in a sense that what we (other famed Arizona guards) were to our team and what he is to this team. His value to this team is never going to be measured in numbers because his statistics are never going to look right when you match him against someone else. He won’t be an All-American. He wasn’t the Pac-12 Player of the Year because of his statistics. But he’s special. I see him and say, he’s always going to make the right play. He’s always going to knock down the shot. He’s going to make a play on the defensive end. He’s an easy guy to love and watch.

"I didn’t play that way. But since I became a coach, I see that I don’t like guys who play like me. Then I look at a guy like TJ and you appreciate all the things he does. He doesn’t have all the ability other guys have, but he maximizes what he has. He gets every inch out of it on the court."

Thursday night in the biggest game of the season it was the size of the heart that mattered.

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