Arizona’s win not pretty but ‘never in doubt’
SAN DIEGO — There are catch phrases that become part of the culture this time of the year in college basketball.
Arizona freshman Aaron Gordon doesn’t like the one being used now of "survive and advance" for the NCAA tournament.
He’s in favor of a rewrite.
"It’s dominate and advance," said Gordon. "I don’t think we dominated today, but that’s our mentality, and that’s what we need to have."
Top-seeded Arizona was dominant for portions of Friday’s 68-59 win over 16th-seeded Weber State at Viejas Arena, but over the course of the 40 minutes, there were extended periods that it seemed in survival mode.
Arizona coach Sean Miller went as far as saying his team "was fortunate to advance."
It may have been a little overstated, but the point was taken: Arizona needs to play better from here on out.
"I think we let our guard down," Miller said, only to later add: "I never felt the game was in doubt."
After crawling out from a slow start that saw Arizona fall behind 10-2, it built up a 53-32 lead with more than 11 minutes. Then came UA’s slow burn.
Arizona players admitted that it "wasn’t pretty," but through the years, other ugly opening games have resulted in quick trips back to Tucson. East Tennessee State, Santa Clara and Miami (Ohio) come to mind. Miller was an assistant coach for Miami (Ohio) back then. He knows the drill.
But there is no need to hop a plane after this one. Arizona will extend its stay in San Diego for another two days, although Friday was no day at the beach.
"It’s a little surprising, but it’s nothing we can’t fix," said Gordon, who finished with 16 points on 7-of-11 shooting. "We’re going to talk as a team and re-establish what our goals are and what we want to be as a team. And what our identity is as a team. It’s something that we need to understand — that to play at a high level, you need to be at a high level all the time."
For Arizona, it was a game of a stuttering start, a fluid middle and a sputtering end.
The one saving grace was the same as its been for most of Arizona’s season — a stifling defense that blocked 12 shots and limited Weber State to 30 percent shooting (16 of 53).
"Give them credit, they shoot the ball really well and they got hot," said Gabe York. "Like coach told us: if we thought any game was going to be easy, we are mistaken. This is the NCAA tournament and every team can play. We have to match runs."
Weber State outscored Arizona 21-13 over the final 8:39 to at least make the partisan Arizona fans in the Arena squirm a little.
"Our guys got a little more tough and showed resilience like they have all year," said Weber State coach Randy Rahe. "They’ve got a great team, great talent, great coaching, they have it all."
The question is whether they can put it all together.
"Just finish better," said guard Nick Johnson, who led Arizona with 18 points, when asked what Miller’s post-game message was. "We know our identity. We’re a defensive team. We just need to stay with it and finish the game. We’ve been doing it all year."
Arizona will get another chance in facing Gonzaga on Sunday for the right to advance to the Sweet 16.
And speaking of teens, Arizona teenagers Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, 19, and Gordon, 18, acquitted themselves well.
"You have to rise to the occasion, and I felt like I did pretty well for my first time," Gordon said.
Hollis-Jefferson did likewise with his aggressiveness. He had a thunderous dunk and hit all five shots from the floor. He finished with 13 points.
"They’ve been poised this whole year," York said of his young teammates. "I’m always impressed with how they play. Rondae gave us intensity when he came in. He had six, eight points off the bat. We look to that every game."
Hollis-Jefferson said he suffered three pokes to the eye in the second half. He had it evaluated soon after the game and is said to be fine.
"It’s a great feeling to get your first NCAA win," said Hollis-Jefferson. "I’m just happy to be part of it. You have to step up to the challenge and accept it. We know what we have to do as freshmen. We play a pretty big role on the team. We just have to go out give it our all and give it our best shot."
It took a while, however. Weber State scored the game’s first seven points and was up 10-2 before Arizona woke up. A 24-7 run helped Arizona lead 32-20 at the half.
Much of the offensive spark came from York, who nailed a pair of 3-pointers en route to nine points.
"The stakes are a little higher, but we’re just playing basketball," Johnson spoke about the big stage. "It’s just good to win. That’s our goal."
In the end, that may have been Miller’s loudest message, even if it lacks Gordon’s stamp of approval.
"We won and get to get ready for the next game," York said. "He said we had the thrill of winning and moving onto the next round. It’s what we play for. We are 31-4 and one of the top four teams to be a No. 1 seed. We just need to be ready to go."