SAN DIEGO – Spent and elated as they emerged from the fog of a classic March Madness battle, the Arizona Wildcats, their coaches and fans walked out of Viejas Arena with satisfied smiles.
And maybe a little relief.
For the first time since the 2017 NCAA men’s championship tournament, Arizona clinched a berth in the Sweet 16. And, of course, it didn’t come easily. What has for Wildcat basketball over the past few years?
It took overtime, but Arizona – seeded No. 1 in the South region – outlasted Texas Christian, 85-80, to move on to San Antonio, Texas, where they will face fifth-seeded Houston in the regional semifinals.
Arizona survived a wild scramble in regulation when Dalen Terry trapped TCU guard Mike Miles at the midcourt line. The ball came loose as they collided, but there was no call of a foul or backcourt violation. Terry scooped up the ball and raced to the hoop with a chance to break a 75-75 tie, but his dunk came a millisecond after the buzzer, sending the game into overtime.
“It was a foul,” Miles told reporters after the game. “They didn’t call it.”
The controversy did nothing to mute Arizona’s celebration.
With the blare of Wildcats fans honking their horns in the background, Arizona coach Tommy Lloyd said the fans and his players earned the right to celebrate.
After all, Arizona had not even played in March Madness since 2018, and the program served a self-imposed postseason ban last season amid an on-going NCAA investigation.
“I don’t know if I deserve this, but those players deserve it,” said Lloyd, a former Gonzaga assistant who’s in his first year at UArizona. “And I’m so thankful that they get to experience this. Going to a Sweet 16 is special.”
With the ups and downs the program has gone through as a backdrop, Sunday night’s game was a crash course from the Wildcats on how to fight through tough times.
“These games are hard and the pressure is immense,” Lloyd said. “And for a bunch of young guys that have never been to an NCAA Tournament – with a first-year head coach – for them to hang in there in a game like that, this says a lot about them. I’m most proud of them. That’s what I’m most proud of.”
Junior center Christian Koloko played almost 40 minutes and delivered the game-clinching dunk off Bennedict Mathurin’s missed 3-point shot in the final seconds of overtime. Koloko, who has been with Arizona his entire collegiate career and remained despite the 2021 postseason ban, knows a thing or two about fighting through adversity.
“Coach, he trusts us,” Koloko said. “And he told us we’ve got to hang in there. I think that’s what we did. We didn’t panic. We played our game and we came back. Just got to give credit to my teammates and coaching staff. We had a good plan, and we won. So that’s amazing.”
The emotion that the Wildcats displayed down the stretch seemed to be missing much of the first half. That all changed with the game on the line. An eruption from the crowd followed every huge play as the two teams exchanged big shots.
And Arizona players didn’t hide their exuberance after each shining moment.
After the final buzzer in overtime, the Wildcats’ elation was mixed with a sense of relief, perhaps because expectations are so high for the Arizona program, and especially this Arizona team.
“I had to show emotions,” said Mathurin, a sophomore guard who scored two of his team-high 30 points off an offensive rebound late in overtime and celebrated with a couple of fist pumps. “I play a game that I love most. So, I just went out there and got the rebound, made it. And I was emotional.”
It is hard to find someone who plays with more energy than sophomore guard Kerr Kriisa. Battling an ankle injury, Kriisa gutted out a 26-minute performance off the bench that saw him struggle from the floor. A big hug from his family awaited him after the final buzzer, and he celebrated with the Estonian flag draped around his shoulders.
“To have 26 minutes recovering from a sprained ankle, and to have a plus-minus of 24, I think that tells you what he means to our team,” Lloyd said of Kriisa, his point guard.
Lloyd turned to Kriisa for a jolt of energy off the bench each time TCU seemed poised for a big run. And each time Kriisa’s name was announced, the Arizona fans erupted. Kriisa never doubted that he and his teammates would deliver for the fans.
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“I believed the whole time, and I think they did, too,” Lloyd said. “The way they were communicating in the huddles, I knew we just needed to hang in there, make a play or two, and we would get this thing over the top.”
After the game, Mathurin said the big fan following made the arena feel like “McKale West.” The Wildcats already had turned T-Mobile Center in Las Vegas into “McKale Center North” while capturing the Pac-12 tournament crown.
Now they travel to San Antonio, where Wildcats fans are sure to follow and transform the AT&T Center into “McKale Center East.”
The Wildcats hope to keep those fans smiling.
“We came all the way from Tucson to San Diego for a reason,” Mathurin said. “We came here to win. So, I just want to say that when we come here, we know we have the fans cheering for us and giving us energy just to win the game.”