McConnell again shines as Arizona continues to dance
PORTLAND, Ore. -- Point guard legacies are built with deep runs in the NCAA Tournament. At Arizona, that means names such as Steve Kerr, Damon Stoudamire, Mike Bibby, Jason Terry and Jason Gardner.
Enter T.J. McConnell.
The senior has been working his way into the discussion of all-time greats at Arizona, as he continues to mystify and marvel with the ball in his hand -- and even when it isn't. He did it again Saturday afternoon as the Wildcats beat Ohio State 73-58 in the Moda Center to advance to the next week's Sweet 16 in the West Region.
McConnell finished with 19 points, six rebounds, six assists, five steals and led a defensive effort that hounded Buckeyes freshman star D'Angelo Russell into a 3-of-19 shooting performance.
"I've said it all along: He's our most valuable player because of what he's done consistently over time," Arizona coach Sean Miller said.
"But also what a talented defensive player that he is. It's never a one-on-one game, T.J. vs. D'Angelo Russell, but T.J. guarded him throughout the course of the game and I thought did an outstanding job. You watch D'Angelo Russell play in the Big Ten season, he's an amazingly talented offensive player.
"For T.J. to impose his will, work as hard as he did on that side of the ball, a lot of times that player doesn't have enough on offense to help you. When you look at what he does for us on both ends, he's like an All-American player."
For sure, he had an All-American performance Saturday.
McConnell became just the sixth player to have at least 15 points, five assists, five rebounds and five steals in an NCAA Tournament game.
"I wasn't aware of that," McConnell said. "You know, we can enjoy it now, but we've got to move on. It was a good game for us, but we can't be too high on this one. Just got to look ahead to the next game."
Arizona will play Xavier on Thursday in the Sweet 16 in Los Angeles.
Last year, McConnell helped guide the Wildcats to the Elite Eight; a Final Four appearance this year would cement his place among the greats in school history.
On Saturday, McConnell willed Arizona to a win, providing enough offense early while the Wildcats tried to solve Ohio State's 2-3 zone. His eight points, four steals and two assists -- without a turnover -- in the first half kept Arizona in a game that looked scary for 20 minutes.
"He's been doing that the whole entire season," forward Brandon Ashley said of McConnell steadying the team. "He's the leader of this team and without him we wouldn't be in the position we are in today."
In a game in which starters Ashley, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Stanley Johnson needed 32 shots from the field to make seven, McConnell needed only 13 attempts to make eight.
When he found Kaleb Tarczewski for a dunk with just over 14 minutes left and then followed it with a rebound off an Ohio State miss, it was almost as though Arizona could breathe a bit easier. The Wildcats were up by seven, matching their largest lead. They accelerated from there, leading by double digits for most of the rest of the game.
"The MVP for Arizona was McConnell," said Ohio State coach Thad Matta. "That kid was unbelievable, both offensively and defensively. Just did a great, great job. I kind of like coaching because he's out there having the time of his life."
McConnell did have help from a much-needed source -- junior guard Gabe York, who turned into Arizona's zone buster. When he hit his fourth 3-pointer in seven attempts, Arizona took its first double-digit lead, at 46-36. He hit 5 of 9 shots -- all from behind the arc -- and finished with 19 points, one shy of his career high.
"I'd say he can knock down shots with the best of them," Ashley said. "His confidence is up there right now. We expect that from him the whole time."
York was rolling, but McConnell was the tour guide. At one point, McConnell pointed to himself to say sorry to York for not getting him the ball when he was open.
Meanwhile, Arizona limited Russell to nine points, 10 below his season average. It was only the second time he was held to single-digit scoring this season. McConnell, a member of the Pac-12 All-Defense team, was a big part of that, along with Hollis-Jefferson.
So, Arizona moves on to its third consecutive Sweet 16 -- and its fourth in Miller's six seasons with the Wildcats. But getting this far was expected. Arizona is already a big favorite to beat Xavier.
Legacies -- for this team and for McConnell -- figure to be determined by whatever happens after that.