Dream season for Arizona comes to a bitter end with Sweet 16 loss to Houston
A Dalen Terry triple brought the Wildcats within two points of the Cougars with 13:27 to play in the second half. It was the closest Arizona, the No. 1 seed in the South Region, had been since the game’s opening three minutes. Houston, a 5-seed, scored the first points of the evening and never trailed.
But after an uneven first half that played out about as poorly for the Wildcats as possible, they were right there knocking on the door. So often this season it was Arizona absorbing first-half blows, going into the locker room to regroup, and then coming out with a flurry over the final 20 minutes.
Thursday night at the Sweet 16, it was Houston with the decisive run. After Terry’s triple, Houston hit the ‘Cats with a 10-2 run over the next three minutes to go up double-digits. It put the Wildcats on their heels and that was that.
Houston won it 72-60 to advance to the Elite Eight and end Arizona’s season. The Cougars were better. The Wildcats’ (33-4) youth showed. An otherwise remarkable first season under head coach Tommy Lloyd came to a close with a thud.
Houston was 23-0 coming into the game when holding opponents under 40% shooting from the field. Arizona finished at 33%. The high-flying Wildcats simply ran into a sledgehammer of a Houston team.
“We’re going to win a game in the 60s,” Houston head coach Kelvin Sampson said after the game. “But we’re not going to win the game in the 80s.”
Houston controlled the pace.
Its offensive rebounding was the key mentioned by just about everyone entering the night—and the Cougars grabbed 12 boards that led to 19 second-chance points—but Arizona’s sloppiness was the real killer.
The Wildcats turned it over 14 times. Eight of those came in the second half. Houston got 24 points directly from UA giveaways.
Right from the get-go, Arizona was flat-footed defensively. Houston was able to create dribble penetration seemingly every possession, catching Arizona defenders either out of position or too upright on the perimeter. Houston made the right play often enough once it got the ball inside. It drove, kicked, drove again, and in the scramble created cross-matches inside.
Houston was getting buckets in close or getting rebounds from bigs Arizona was trying to box out with guards.
Arizona had one last push as the clock ticked under three to play, deploying a full-court trap and forcing three straight Houston turnovers to get the lead down to six.
Again, though, unfocused play bit the ‘Cats in the rear.
Bennedict Mathurin, who finished with 15 points and wasn’t nearly the flame-thrower he was against TCU last Sunday, was stripped of the ball in the paint with less than two minutes to play by Houston’s Kyler Edwards.
On the ensuing possession, Mathurin fell asleep guarding none other than Edwards.
Already sitting on 15 points for the game at that point with three made triples in the second half, Edwards was left alone on the wing. Mathurin was caught ball-watching Jamal Shead at the top of the floor. Shead kicked to Edwards, who rose and splashed a triple to put the Cougs back up nine with 86 seconds left.
Houston faithful exploded.
Arizona hopefuls shrunk in their seats.
It was an off-night for Arizona. Only three other times this season were the ‘Cats held under 40% shooting from the field.
Mathurin was 4-for-14. Christian Koloko was 2-for-6. Kerr Kriisa and Azuolas Tubelis combined to shoot 1-for-15. Those two in particular struggled in Arizona’s second-round win as well. Arizona won thanks to the individual brilliance of Mathurin and Koloko. With nothing else working right, a combined six turnovers and 14 missed shots put a strain on the offense.
You have to credit the Cougars’ defense.
“They do the things they’re good at at such a high level, it’s hard for you to get comfortable the first time around,” Lloyd said.
Houston’s plan was to make Tubelis a scorer. When Arizona tried to slip and ghost screens and roll its bigs to the basket—something it did well to start the second half to draw close—Houston started dropping under on the ball screen. Sampson had counters to everything Lloyd wanted to do.
And that happens at this level. Arizona will grow.
The Wildcats still enjoyed a strong season. “Nobody believed in us and we made them believe in us,” Koloko said. A Sweet 16 appearance under a first-year head coach with so much of the rotation making its NCAA Tournament debut figures to be just the start of a successful run.
“I thanked these guys after the game,” Lloyd said. “They really helped me get Arizona basketball off to a good start in my tenure.
“We really built some foundational pieces that are really going to serve us well going forward. Extremely proud of the guys. Extremely proud of the coaching staff. We ran into a really good team tonight that was just a little bit too much for us.”