SALT LAKE CITY – Those who were enamored of Belmont because of its strong 3-point shooting forgot to factor in Arizona’s elite skill level.
The sixth-seeded Wildcats rode an athletic edge at virtually every position to a decisive 81-64 victory over the national upset darling Bruins in the NCAA West regional at Energy Solutions Arena on Thursday, with the athleticism advantage showing at virtually every turn.
Arizona (26-7) seemed to get to the basket at will and get just about any rebound it wanted – the Wildcats shot 56.9 percent from field, made more than half of their 3-point attempts and outrebound the smaller Bruins by 26, 44-18.
Mark Lyons led four double-figure scorers with 23 points.
“We had a physical advantage in this game,” Arizona coach Sean Miller said. “It’s one thing to have the advantage, and it’s another to take advantage of it. That’s what we did.
“I guess the stat that is overwhelming is our rebounding. I think that shows the effort level we played with and, whether it was defensive or offensive rebounding, taking advantage of our strengths.”
Miller preaches defense and rebounding, and when the Wildcats are rebounding at their best, good things can happen. Their 69-50 victory over No. 5 Miami in the Diamond Head Classic on Dec. 23 was due to a plus-26 advantage on the boards, and they outrebounded 11 of their opponents in the 14-0 start that pushed them to No. 3 in the nation entering Pac-12 play.
The Cats talked about regaining their defensive focus in the last several weeks, and it showed against Belmont, which shot only 39.2 percent from the field. At the same time, Kevin Parrom – 12 points, eight rebounds – said, “The best is yet to come.”
“We’re not at our peak. I don’t think we have had our best moments yet,” he continued.
Arizona’s victory sets up an unexpected Saturday game against 14th-seeded Harvard, which pulled off the stunner of the opening day of the tournament by knocking off third-seeded New Mexico 68-62. The winner of that game advances to the NCAA Sweet Sixteen, to be played at Staples Pavilion in Los Angeles.
“I was more impressed with the team that I saw tonight than I was in scouting them,” Belmont coach Rick Byrd said. “I thought they were more engaged and more focused, and I think if they play that way they can beat a lot of people.”
Arizona never trailed and, thanks to a 27-9 rebounding edge, led at the half 32-20. Belmont got closer only once in the second half, when a 10-0 run fueled by two quick 3-pointers trimmed the Wildcats’ lead to 64-53. But Lyons made a layup, Nick Johnson fed Solomon Hill for a 3-pointer and Lyons fed Kaleb Tarczewski for a layup to put UA back in control.
Tarczewski had 12 points and eight rebounds, same as Parrom. Johnson also scored 12 and had five assists. Freshman Brandon Ashley had six points and seven rebounds in 22 minutes, and Grant Jerrett had four points, six rebounds and two blocked shots in 18 minutes.
Arizona had 12 offensive rebounds and 17 second-chance points. Belmont had four and one, respectively.
“We really wanted to come out and use our size,” said Ashley, who seems to be playing his best basketball of late.
“When you get offensive rebounds and score, you stop their transition. They are a great transition team. We have 7-footers and athletic 6-10 and 6-9 guys. When we bring that to the table and that is our identity, we’re a tough team to beat,” Lyons said.
Belmont (26-7) entered the game averaging 8.3 3-pointers a game, emphasizing the way Byrd likes to play. The Bruins’ top 3-point shooter, Ian Clark, had 21 points and went 3 for 8 from long range, but Johnson and Jordin Mayes did a good job of running him off the 3-point line. Slashing point guard Kerron Johnson had 22 points, most on drives to the basket in the second half when the Bruins tried in vain to get within single digits.
“When you are fighting an uphill battle the whole time, even when you make those runs, one big 3 by them can stop your momentum. To their credit, they made big shots all game,” Kerron Johnson said.
Lyons, who scored his tournament-best 23 points while playing in his fourth straight tourney, took advantage of a defense designed to pressure the perimeter to keep the Wildcats from dumping the ball inside as easily to 7-footer Tarczewki, 6-10 Jerrett, 6-8 Ashley and 6-7 Hill, all of whom were as tall as or taller than any Belmont starter. The Wildcats countered by running Lyons off high screens, and both he and Johnson took advantage by driving inside for layups.
“They really got extended, as extended maybe as any team we have played. We tried to put Mark in position to use the screen with the court wide open, and he took advantage of it. It’s something he’s good at, and he really did a good job,” Miller said.
Lyons said he took it upon himself to lead by aggressive example.
“We have a lot of young guys on the team, and I want them to know they can follow their leaders. If I come out nervous and that, they might come out nervous. I wanted to show them I was ready. And they were ready. I told the guys it was just another game. You just have to be a little more focused,” Lyons said.