Arizona finds its way past Kansas State, advances to Maui final

Arizona guard T.J. McConnell drives to the basket against the Kansas State.

Brian Spurlock/Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

Five games into the Arizona basketball season and this much is clear: There’s a lot of work to be done and a lot to be learned.

Then again March — and all its madness — is still four months away. Arizona hasn’t looked like the No. 3 team in the country but is 5-0 after defeating Kansas State, 72-68 in the semifinals of the EA Maui Invitational.

"We feel like we beat a great team, and that’s why you come to Maui to challenge yourself on a neutral court like we just did," Arizona coach Sean Miller said.

Despite looking stilted and disjointed at times, Arizona moves on.

"At the end of the day, it’s all about winning games," said Arizona freshman Stanley Johnson, who finished with 14 points, seven rebounds and a key steal late in the game to help preserve the win. He also played with four fouls for most of the second half. "When I went back in the game, it was time to rebound, and get it to our leader, T.J.(McConnell), and have him orchestrate stuff."

The stuff was just good enough in Arizona’s first true test against a high-level team. Arizona passed the test, but it was a struggle, as has been commonplace for the Wildcats early in the season.

It took a 10-0 run midway through the second half to help with the win, although Arizona couldn’t entirely shake Kansas State later. UA had a nine-point lead with 10 minutes left, but Kansas State closed within a basket at 69-67 with 11.1 seconds left. But Johnson hit the second of two free throws to help provide a cushion.

"I thought when we played UC Irvine we grew up a lot," said McConnell, who had seven points, four rebounds and six assists. "But after this game it kind of shows how resilient our team is. The score was going back and forth, and you weren’t really sure which way the score was going to go. I mean, we just played hard. We knew this game was going to be close. Kansas State is an NCAA tournament team. They’re very good. They’re very well-coached. I thought we didn’t get down when we were down . . . We didn’t get too high when we were up. So I think we did a good job."

Arizona 72, Kansas State 68

But not always.

Free-throw misses and the inability to pull away were a couple of Arizona’s issues. Yet, it found away to get to the finals of a preseason tournament for the third consecutive year. Last year, Arizona won the preseason NIT, and it won the Diamond Head Classic vs. San Diego State two years ago.

Arizona assistant coach Damon Stoudamire, speaking for Miller in the postgame radio show, said UA won the game because "we were poised" and "a lot of different guys stepped up throughout the game."

Arizona can thank junior center Kaleb Tarczewski, who entered the game averaging just 6.5 points. Tarczewski finished with a career-high tying 18 points and was pivotal in the win. But he had just three rebounds.

"Tonight was his night," Miller said. "We got the ball to him and he delivered."

 Follow Steve Rivera on Twitter