Arizona’s McConnell gets Sweet 16 birthday win with second-half surge

LOS ANGELES — When Arizona guard T.J. McConnell is on the floor, he’s a game-changer. 

But Thursday, he changed the game for Xavier — not Arizona — in the first half of the NCAA tournament West Region semifinal game at the Staples Center.

"In the first half, you could have said I was practically playing for Xavier with how many times I passed them the ball," he said. "I couldn’t hit water if I fell out of a boat from 3."

McConnell has been a 34 percent 3-point shooter this season. He doesn’t hoist a lot up, he carefully picks his spots. But he wasn’t so careful through the first 36 minutes of the game. However, with four minutes left to play and the No. 2 seed Wildcats up by just one, McConnell regained his composure and picked right. 

"Tonight, he let some of his early misses affect him and in the first half, he was not himself," said head coach Sean Miller. "T.J. was so much more himself in the second half."

It was a perfectly balanced 3, his first — and only — of the night. 

"I saw they were playing off me and I just kind of shot it," he said. I was hoping it went in because I was abysmal from 3 tonight, but I’m glad it did and it kind of sparked us."

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One was all he and the Wildcats needed.

That 3 was the game-changing play that Arizona is used to seeing from McConnell. If it had gone just a half-inch wide, who knows where they would be right now?

"That was definitely a very big play for us tonight," said forward Brandon Ashley. "T.J., being the guy that he is, is kind of a rhythm guy, so once he does get into a rhythm of the game anything is possible for him."

McConnell is East Coast guy on a team full of West Coast products. From Pittsburgh, he’s developed a tight bond with his Pittsburgh coach in Miller. He came to Arizona from Duquesne with a desire to play in the NCAA tournament. And here he is, the motor that continues to drive Arizona from one round to the next. 

"He’s such a great facilitator," Ashley said. "Obviously, he’s a very talented scorer but he doesn’t like to do that as much as pass. He gets us flowing offensively."

McConnell distributed more efficiently than he shot against the Musketeers, with five assists, but he found his game in the second half, scoring 13 points. McConnell helped the Wildcats penetrate Xavier’s 1-3-1 defense and along with center Kaleb Tarczewski, led a second-half surge to finally overtake the Musketeers.

There was never a doubt that McConnell, for as dismal as he was in the first half, would be able to snap out of the funk.

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"He was upset," Ashley said. "But at the same time, he played a hell of a second half."

The win happened to fall on McConnell’s birthday. It was the best birthday present he could have asked for, even topping the bike he got when he was eight years old. But McConnell, a senior, has at least one more game to pick his spots. 

If he picks right, the celebration will be far bigger than any other birthday. 

"He has the ability to take the big shot and make it," Miller said. "I think that’s one of the reasons we’re here today."