Wildcats finding early-season form at right time
SALT LAKE CITY — The longer the NCAA tournament goes, the better Arizona looks.
Remember the team that won its first 14 games and reached No. 3 in the national polls on New Year’s Day? That new year may be here again.
No. 21 Arizona dismantled its opponent for the second consecutive game in the West subregional, dominating upstart Harvard in a 74-51 win at Energy Solutions Arena to advance to the program’s second Sweet Sixteen in the Los Angeles area in three seasons.
The Wildcats’ young big men smothered the Crimson inside, their guards chased the Harvard shooters off the 3-point line and Mark Lyons tied his career high with 27 points in a game that was never close. The Crimson made one of their first 18 field-goal attempts, by which time Arizona had a 25-7 lead.
The Harvard team that was riding a high after its first NCAA tournament victory in school history over 10th-ranked New Mexico two days ago fell hard, as Belmont did against Arizona on Thursday. UA led for all 80 minutes of the subregional, won by an aggregate 40 points and limited opponents to 33 percent shooting from the floor.
It is a formula the Wildcats can live with.
“If we want to have a chance of winning in LA, we have to keep continuing the same defensive pressure. Guys have to go out and keep executing,” senior forward Solomon Hill said.
Arizona (27-7) will meet the winner of the Ohio State-Iowa State game to be played Sunday in Dayton, which is about 70 miles from the Ohio State campus in Columbus. The West regional begins Thursday at Staples Center. UA beat Duke in the Sweet Sixteen at the Toyota Center in Orange County in 2011 before losing to eventual NCAA champion Connecticut by one point in the regional final.
Among players, the Utah subregional sweep conjured up visions of the holiday trip to the Diamond Head Classic, where the Wildcats beat No. 5 Miami and then-No. 17 San Diego State to claim the tournament championship and a top-three national ranking.
“It kind of feels like San Diego State,” Hill said. “Guys are really buying into what we want to do and letting the offense just come. I think we had some offensive struggles when the Pac-12 (season) started, but when we all focus in on defense, it really helps out offense as well.
Added senior wing Kevin Parrom: “It kind of feels like how it was when we went to Hawaii. We just have ratcheted our defense up. It’s not wanting to go home, as simple as that. It’s what you have to do to stay in the tournament.”
There were no signs of celebration in a calm Arizona locker room, fitting for a team that expects more of itself.
“Me, personally, I didn’t come here to say, ‘I want to get to a Sweet Sixteen,'” sophomore guard Nick Johnson said. “I always had bigger dreams than that. It is obviously a great accomplishment, but we’re not done. We are going to get ready for Thursday and move on from there.”
Coach Sean Miller had a three-word question for the Wildcats when they entered the locker room.
“Coach wrote on the board, ‘Are we satisfied?’ We all said, ‘No,’ ” Parrom said.
“Most teams would probably be jumping for joy to make the Sweet Sixteen, but we’re not satisfied. We’re not finished yet. We want to do some special things, and I think everybody knows that. You can’t be great throughout the whole season. It’s hard. But we’re doing a good job of keeping our composure now. That’s great in March.”
Lyons, a senior who will make his third Sweet 16 appearance in four years, made 12-of-17 field-goal attempts while shredding a Harvard defense the same way he did Belmont’s defense for 23 points Thursday. Both teams defended Lyons the same way on the perimeter, and he used ball screens to either work his way to the basket or make open 3-pointers. He went 3 for 6 from 3-point range Saturday; the Wildcats went 9-for-15 overall, as Johnson and Hill made two apiece and Parrom and Jordin Mayes had one. Hill finished with 13 points and 10 rebounds.
“Very aggressive,” Hill said of Lyons. “He is really pacing the offense. He’s having a lot of opportunities to score. When he is aggressive, I think the team is a lot better.”
Arizona’s run started early — it was 10-2 at the first media timeout and 17-2 when freshman Brandon Ashley made two free throws seven minutes into the game. It was part of the Wildcats’ shock-and-awe plan to hit the Crimson early.
“We have this thing we call wars between the media timeouts,” freshman center Kaleb Tarczewski said. “(Miller) really wants us to come out strong the first four minutes of the game. We’ve really been focusing on the first four minutes to tell the other team we’re here. We’re ready to go. That’s really what we did tonight.”
Arizona weathered foul trouble for Parrom and Ashley, both of whom fouled out while playing only 30 minutes combined, and a right elbow injury to freshman Grant Jerrett that limited him to 49 seconds in the first half. Jerrett landed on his right elbow when he was undercut while attempting a left-handed layup with 14:37 remaining and did not return. He wore an ice pack and a bandage when he returned to the bench. He said no X-rays were taken and he expected to be fine for the next round.
Mayes had eight points and three assists while filling in for Parrom.
“That is what a team is all about,” Parrom said. “Mayes stepped up today. It’s going to take a group of guys to really do something special.
“We want to be a great team. We don’t want to have a bunch of collective players who are good. We want to be that great team. It’s something we want to be remembered by. I think we are doing a good job with that.”