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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

No. 3 Arizona secures 66-63 OT victory over No. 9 Gonzaga behind stingy defense

No.+3+Arizona+secures+66-63+OT+victory+over+No.+9+Gonzaga+behind+stingy+defense
Kyle Hansen

Down two points with less than five seconds left in the game, Gonzaga guard Byron Wesley was fouled on a 3-point attempt. As the call was reviewed and confirmed, the air seemed to leave McKale Center.

As Wesley went to the line to shoot the first of his three shots, the crowd turned the volume up and watched as Wesley air-balled the first. The crowd went up in a furor that, believe it or not, increased the volume.

Shortly after, Wesley missed the second shot wide, all but guaranteeing he miss the final attempt. With the crowd going wild, Wesley missed the third and final shot, the Wildcats grabbed the board and Gonzaga did not foul.

“When I saw the air ball, to be honest, I was in shock that he air-balled the free throw,” UA point guard T.J. McConnell said. “But then he missed the next one and pretty much had to miss the last one on purpose. Credit to our fans. I [say] this every time I’m asked, we have the best fans in the country, and they just proved why tonight, at the free-throw line at the end.”

With the way regulation was going, it was almost a given that overtime would be needed during No. 3 Arizona’s 66-63 OT victory over the No. 9 Gonzaga Bulldogs.

Throughout the back-and-forth affair, both teams adopted a bend but didn’t break mentality on defense. Luckily for the Wildcats, their defensive intensity proved to be stingier than the Zags’, especially from the four-minute mark of regulation to the end of overtime, where Gonzaga was held to just one field goal.

It was the kind of defense that makes head coach Sean Miller’s squad so effective.

“That’s one of the strengths of our team,” Miller said. “We won today’s game because of the strength of our defense.”

Arizona held a Gonzaga team that came in averaging 88 points per game to just 63 points on 39.7 percent from the field, 23.5 percent from 3-point territory and 68.4 percent from the free-throw line. By comparison, the Wildcats were 44.2 percent from the field, 35.3 percent from deep and 63.6 percent from the charity stripe.

Coming into the game, Gonzaga’s unquestioned leader was starting point guard Kevin Pangos. The 6-foot-2 sharp shooter struggled to score against the UA’s defenders, going just 3-10 from the field for eight points.

In addition to switching the vast majority of on ball screens that Pangos was involved in, Miller said he made sure to throw multiple looks at Pangos to keep him on his toes. Guys like McConnell, Elliott Pitts, Gabe York and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson all took turns guarding Pangos.

“We switched a lot of ball screens, so our big guys did a good job,” Miller said. “The lion’s share of the biggest moments in the game, Rondae was on Kevin Pangos and he did a really good job of just making the game hard, so that if he makes a shot — and he made a big one — that it’s going to be a contested, tough shot.”

However, Pangos was not the only Bulldog capable of putting up points in a hurry. Fellow starters Kyle Wiltjer, Przemek Karnoski, Gary Bell Jr. and Byron Wesley each are capable of putting up points in a guys.

Offensively for the Wildcats, starting power forward Brandon Ashley carried the team as the clock wound down in regulation. Ashley finished the game with a team-high 14 points to go along with five rebounds, two assists and one block in 38 minutes of action.

After the game, McConnell said Ashley’s ability to play inside out makes him one of the best players in the nation and frees up the team to get more open looks.

“I say this all the time: I think Brandon is un-guardable,” McConnell said. “You put a big guy on him, and he’ll drive by you. You put a smaller guy on him, and he can post them up. That just makes our lives easier as perimeter players. He kind of proved that tonight.”

As for McConnell, the senior standout struggled to find a rhythm offensively early on, finishing the game just 4-10 from the field and 3-7 from the charity stripe. However, his defensive play down the stretch of regulation and during the overtime period proved to be the difference.

One play stood out in particular. With about a minute left in the second half of a tied game, McConnell stripped Pangos on his way to the basket on what could have been the go-ahead layup.

Plays like that back up the notion that T.J. McConnell is the heart and soul of this Arizona men’s basketball team.

“It was kind of a mindset, kind of taking it personally,” McConnell said. “Saying, ‘What about Arizona? What about us?’ We took it to the next level.”

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Follow Roberto Payne on Twitter.

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