NCAA TOURNAMENT: Xavier downs Arizona in a thriller 73-71

March 23, 2017

NCAA

Arizona guard Kobi Simmons, center, drives past Xavier forward Tyrique Jones, right, as Trevon Bluiett (5) watches during the first half of an NCAA Tournament college basketball regional semifinal game Thursday, March 23, 2017, in San Jose, Calif. (AP Photo/Tony Avelar)

By Jeremy Harness

SAN JOSE – Xavier has been always known as a tough, gut-it-out team, best known for its teeth-cutting battles with crosstown rival Cincinnati.

That toughness has continued to show throughout the Musketeers’ run through this year’s NCAA Tournament and again shone through Thursday night in the round of 16. They found themselves down to a more physically-talented Arizona team for much of the game but got the defensive stops that it desperately needed in the final minutes for a 73-71 win at the SAP Center.

The Musketeers will now face Gonzaga, who fought past West Virginia in the preceding game, Saturday afternoon at 3:09pm PST with a trip to the Final Four on the line, a place that neither program has ever been.

“I’m really proud of our kids,” Xavier coach Chris Mack said. “They battled tooth-and-nail. And for us to be able to go out and put together consecutive stops and come down and execute, it says a lot about how much our team has grown.”

These two teams met almost exactly two years ago, again in the Sweet Sixteen. The two schools were tied at the half, with Arizona taking over late in the game and advancing to the Elite Eight with a 68-60 win.

It appeared that this game would have a similar ending, especially given the fact that Arizona had romped their way through the Pac-12 tournament to earn a No. 2 seed in the West region, and had fought off a pesky St. Mary’s team with stellar play in the second half.

Xavier, however, had none of that, even after finding themselves down by eight with 3:44 to go. The Musketeers staged a rally – which was keyed by junior guard Trevon Bluiett, a third-team All-American who scored a game-high 25 points while making nine of his 17 shots from the floor – to tie the game two minutes later.

Sean O’Hara got a tough inside bucket with 40 seconds left and had a chance to ice the game when he grabbed a defensive rebound on the ensuing Arizona possession and was fouled. He missed the first free throw of a one-in-one, however, and that gave the Wildcats one last chance.

Guard Allonzo Trier had a decent look at a 3-pointer for the lead with eight seconds left, but it clanked off the back rim, and after a fight for the loose ball, Xavier came away with it and then sprinted into the frontcourt before Arizona had a chance to foul.

From that point, the Musketeers and their fans celebrated wildly, while Trier was left sitting on the floor wondering what just happened, especially after his team had shown its mettle in a talent-laden Pac-12.

Trier, meanwhile, finished with 19 points to go along with nine rebounds and three assists.

“I just told them to not try to get it all back in one or two possessions,” Mack said. “But it’s gotten to the point where they already know that. They just sort of echo, ‘Coach, we got it, we understand.’ And that hasn’t always been the case.”

11th-seeded Xavier was fighting an uphill battle from the outset, as Arizona scored the first seven points of the game and held a 10-2 lead in the first five minutes of the game while the Musketeers struggled to find an answer for Dusan Ristic, who finished the game with 17 points on 7-of-10 shooting.

They slowly clawed their way back into the game and took their first lead of the game with less than three minutes left in the first half when Tyrique Jones’ dunk gave Xavier a 31-29 lead. Arizona, however, regained the momentum and went into halftime carrying a 37-35 lead.

For the better part of the second half, the two schools continued to trade baskets without either school leading by any more than four points, until Arizona put together an 11-0 run that seemed like it would put the Musketeers away for good.

However, that was when the Wildcats began to misfire at the most inopportune of times and gave Xavier just enough of a chance to pull the rug from right underneath their feet.

“It’s never easy when it ends, especially when you have a great team or had a great season,” Arizona coach Sean Miller said. “I think it’s always important, especially as the leader or our team and program, that we define our success.

“And I think if you’re a team that is 32-5, you win both the Pac-12 regular season and also the Pac-12 Tournament, and our journey ends in the Sweet 16, it’s hard to look at that as not getting it done or failure.”

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