Arizona edges Santa Clara behind Markkanen, Simmons
LAS VEGAS — With his roster down to eight healthy scholarship players, Arizona coach Sean Miller knew one of his freshmen would have to step up during the Continental Las Vegas Invitational.
On Thursday night against Santa Clara, two of them did.
Lauri Markkanen had 16 points and nine rebounds, Kobi Simmons scored 14 and No. 8 Arizona advanced to the championship game with a 69-61 victory.
The Wildcats (5-0) will play Butler for the title on Friday.
“Every game is going to be a tough game right now,” Miller said. “It was a great challenge. They played a 3-2 zone for 40 minutes, and for a young group like ours, we had our moments where we really did a nice job. If it wasn't for a couple of turnovers, I think we would have been even better against their zone.”
Arizona limited the Broncos to 36 percent shooting (9 of 25) in the second half. And yet, Santa Clara sliced its deficit to 59-58 when Jared Brownridge drained a long 3-pointer with 4:10 left — the team's fourth straight 3 during a 12-4 run.
But then Keanu Pinder converted both ends of a 1-and-1, Santa Clara turned the ball over and Parker Jackson-Cartwright hit a 3 to push Arizona's lead back to 64-58. The Wildcats closed the game on a 10-3 spurt, and the Broncos (3-3) went scoreless over the final 3 minutes.
“I think we just stayed confident in ourselves. We know what we need to do out there and we know what we need to get done,” Simmons said. “(If) we keep playing hard to the end, we'll get the victory. We were very composed, we got to our spots, we knew what we wanted to do and I think we did a good job.”
Brownridge had 25 points. Last season he scored a career-high 44 in Arizona's 75-73 overtime win against Santa Clara, hitting seven 3s and making all 15 of his free throws.
“Our team did a much better job this year guarding him than last year,” Miller said. “He made some really, really good shots. There aren't many guards that play college basketball that are better … being able to shoot the 3 than Brownridge.”
Henrik Jadersten and Nate Kratch each had 10 points for Santa Clara, coached by former Arizona State coach Herb Sendek.
Arizona led 37-34 at halftime and scored 14 of the first 23 points in the second half behind Simmons. Every time the Broncos tried to answer, the Wildcats produced timely defensive stops and offensive production to maintain control of the tempo.
“We just kept fighting, rebounding the ball and being aggressive,” said Markkanen, a 7-footer from Finland who is averaging 18.8 points and 8.4 rebounds per game. “We were able to knock some shots down.”
Arizona: After playing Butler, the Wildcats get some much-needed time off. They'll have five days before their next game after playing five games in 11 days and their first six over 14 days in three cities.
Santa Clara: Though the Broncos fell short, they showed they can hang with a nationally ranked power, which should help them when West Coast Conference play begins and they face the likes of No. 11 Gonzaga and No. 15 Saint Mary's.
After shooting 43.3 percent in the first half, the Broncos ended up at 40 percent for the game. Meanwhile, the Wildcats shot 48 percent overall while outrebounding Santa Clara 37-26.
“Santa Clara did an excellent job on offense, being patient and moving the ball,” Miller said. “Kobi played a really good game tonight for us. We challenged him a couple of games ago to give more effort defensively and nobody can question his effort tonight. He has a big upside.”
Butler will pose the biggest test for Arizona since the Wildcats beat then-No. 12 Michigan State on Nov. 11 in Hawaii.
Santa Clara faces Vanderbilt on Friday in Las Vegas, hoping to avoid dipping below .500.
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