Arizona cruises to 87-70 win over Wright State in first game at NCAA Tournament
Too much talent. Too much shooting. Too much length. Too much Zona.
The top-seeded Arizona Wildcats cruised against 16-seed Wright State. There was a brief moment where the Raiders made you sit up in the chair and focus in a little more; might they do it? The margin was cut to just seven early in the second half. Then came the Arizona Avalanche. It always comes. In 5:01 of game clock, Arizona flipped the game, went up 20, and never looked back.
The Wildcats are moving on to the second round of the NCAA Tournament after an 87-70 win over Wright State.
Their first trip back to the NCAAs in four years—and the first trip period for guys in the rotation—is off and running.
“I was proud of how our guys hung in there today,” head coach Tommy Lloyd said after the game. “The first time for these guys experiencing an NCAA Tournament game, first-round games are always interesting, and not because it’s a 1-16 (matchup) but because of the way the crowd setup is. Obviously, there were a lot of Arizona fans there, but it was a pretty calm atmosphere. … Just having these guys get a good feel for that, it’s a good deal and a good experience going forward.”
Bennedict Mathurin scored 18 points. Dalen Terry stuffed the box score with 16 points, seven boards, and four assists. Christian Koloko proved the force Wright State couldn’t handle, putting up 17 points, 13 boards, six assists, and five blocks. Azuolas Tubelis pitched in 13 points on 6-of-8 shooting. Pelle Larsson had 11 on 3-of-4 from deep.
Arizona hit 18 of its first 25 shots before a little lull to end the first half. Lloyd admitted he had an eye toward the end of a full 40-minute game and didn’t want Koloko to pick up an extra foul, so he threw out a lineup the Wildcats haven’t used in a while and Wright State closed on a 7-2 spurt to get the margin to 11 at the break.
There were the 10 first-half turnovers as well.
Justin Kier, starting in place of the injured Kerr Kriisa, was a little jumpy to start. Arizona was a little loose with the basketball.
“We’ve just got to tighten it up,” said Lloyd. “I don’t want these guys to play conservative, and obviously we’re playing without Kerr right now, so we’ve just got to tighten it up a little bit and hopefully we’ll be able to reign it in for the next game because we’re obviously shooting a great percentage but the turnovers on offense kill your efficiency.”
They had nine more in the second half.
Wright State was daring Arizona to shoot. Teams sag off you like that, and there’s a tendency to force a pass instead of taking what’s open.
Lloyd said it multiple times, that 1-16 matchups aren’t ever as easy as most think they are for the 1-seed. There’s pressure. There’s a sense that if you don’t blow the 16-seed out by 30 points you played a poor game.
“You could even feel at the start of the second half when they made that little run and cut it to (seven), I think more fans got behind it than just Wright State fans, and that’s what makes these atmospheres interesting,” Lloyd said. “You know, I don’t know if Seton Hall or TCU’s fans are rooting for us. It makes it an interesting environment and you’ve kind of got to get used to that a little bit.”
That’ll change as Arizona advances deeper into the field.
The message all week leading up to the game was to just play fast and free. Ignore everything else. Let it rip, Lloyd told his team. Have fun. Take the first open 3 you see. Go for the steal when the opportunity presents itself. Arizona shot 11-for-20 on triples. Lloyd liked the shot selection. The Wildcats only forced six Wright State turnovers, but their length clearly bothered the Raiders.
That was no more apparent than in the way Wright State tried—and failed—to guard Koloko. No player in tournament history has had the line Koloko posted. In his previous six games, Koloko had five total assists. Against the Raiders, he had six.
Wright State was digging ball-side on entry passes to the big man and trying to take away Arizona’s high-low lob actions. They collapsed the paint with hopes to try and force UA’s perimeter guys into jumpshooters. As just about everyone else has learned this season, Arizona has counters, and it has pretty confident shooters.
Tubelis knocked in a jumper after the defense sunk off him to take away the lob, then cracked a smile as he jogged back up the floor. When Wright State went under screens on Mathurin, he rose and made them pay.
When the defense collapsed on Koloko, he kicked to open shooters beyond the 3-point line. Lloyd seemed generally please with his offense.
Obviously, 19 turnovers against teams that can match Arizona’s length and skill will be tough to overcome but, remember, Arizona is also playing without its point guard.
“We’re 3-0 without our starting point guard, and it’s a good time of the year to be 3-0,” Lloyd said with a smile.
“The calculus today was simple: I didn’t feel like (Kriisa) was quite ready to play and was hoping we could get through this game without needing him, and fortunately we (did),” Lloyd said. “Now we’ll roll up our sleeves and see what tomorrow brings. He’s closer to playing than not playing, so hopefully soon.”
With Kriisa or without him, Arizona knows it’ll have to be a little cleaner. “There’s a lot of things to go over,” Mathurin said. “We had a lot of turnovers. Bad decisions. We didn’t play with fundamentals at first. But, you know, we adjusted in the second half, took care of the ball a little bit better.” But this was a good start. If you’re nitpicking a 17-point win, you’re in a good spot.
Arizona returns to the floor Sunday against the winner of Seton Hall-TCU.