A tale of two halves: Arizona leans on championship experience in first-round win over Long Beach State

The Arizona Wildcats’ Jaden Bradley dunks the ball against Long Beach State in the first round of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament in Salt Lake City. The Wildcats came away with a 85-65 victory. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

SALT LAKE CITY – A tale of two halves.

That summarizes the No. 2 Arizona Wildcats’ 85-65 win over No. 15 Long Beach State in the first round of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament.

Following the game, UArizona coach Tommy Lloyd joked about playing against one of his closest friends.

“Hey, make no bones about it, I wanted to kick Monson’s a–,” Lloyd said. “Don’t make any bones about it. We’re competitors. It’s like playing, I’m the little brother. I’ve always been the little brother to all those guys. Sometimes, the little brother has to fight back.”

The so-called “little brother” struggled before taking control in the second half. The passion and energy from Long Beach State were infectious, as coach Dan Monson was fired at the end of its regular season but allowed to coach the Beach until they were officially eliminated.

The Long Beach State players were emotional knowing the potential Thursday would mark Monson’s last game with Long Beach. Regardless of the seeding, Lloyd spoke on the difficulties of these games that overlook what the general public might see.

“I mean, we could dissect a lot of different ways,” Lloyd said. “I think the first thing you have to acknowledge is that it’s hard. These games are hard. I’ve been in a lot of 1 (versus) 16 and 2 (versus) 15 games. No matter what you guys think, they’re hard. You have to get comfortable with hard. If you don’t, panic can set in.”

Panic set in for the Wildcats, who missed their first four shots and didn’t score until 17:45 in the first half, off of a three from senior guard Pelle Larsson. The rest of the half was very fickle, as Long Beach went on an 11-0 run that had the Beach faithful roaring throughout the Delta Center.

When the half concluded, Arizona led 41-35, but there was uncertainty about whether they could hold the lead. Those fears were put to rest with a 9-0 Wildcat run to start the second half. The first seven points were scored by senior transfer and forward Keshad Johnson.

These moments are all too normal for Johnson, who transferred from a national championship-contending program with San Diego State during the 2023 NCAA Tournament. Johnson was actually the highest scorer on his team in the 2023 National Championship game against the University of Connecticut with 14 points in only 22 minutes.

Johnson replicated that success from last April, finishing with 13 points, while shooting 5-for-9 from the field in 29 minutes. After Thursday’s win, Lloyd credited Johnson’s mentality as a winner to help the Wildcats get back on track.

“The thing with Ke is he’s got such a special ability to lock into the moment,” Lloyd said. “There’s no moment too big for him because for him they’re all equal. They’re just moments.”

Luckily for the Wildcats, they have experience on their side in the 2024 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament. Two of their players, Johnson and senior transfer Caleb Love bring Arizona a jolt of experience that has no price tag.

Lloyd spoke highly of Love and Johnson’s leadership during during Wednesday’s media availability ahead of their first-round matchup

“It matters a ton,” Lloyd said. “First off, they were significant contributors to teams that made it to the championship game. That tells you they’re really good players. It takes really good players to have great seasons, and they’ve been awesome all year.”

Lloyd is not bluffing. Love, a North Carolina transfer, played on the 2022 national title runner-up Tar Heels team that lost to Kansas. He was also named to the All-Tournament Team.

The 2023-24 Pac-12 Player of the Year averaged a career-high 18.1 points per game this season with the Wildcats, while averaging the highest points per game on the road out of any Pac-12 player, with 20.1 respectively.

Arizona senior forward Keshad Johnson drains a three while practicing ahead of their game against Long Beach State as coach Tommy Lloyd watches. (Photo by Hayden Cilley/Cronkite News)

Arizona senior forward Keshad Johnson drains a three while practicing ahead of their game against Long Beach State as coach Tommy Lloyd watches. (Photo by Hayden Cilley/Cronkite News)

Although Love shot only 6-for-17 during Thursday’s matchup, he snatched 11 rebounds and his first double-double of the tournament. Lloyd didn’t know that Love had a double-double and made it a point to give his star player kudos after the game for doing the little things on the court.

“Caleb had a double-double … good for him,” Lloyd said. “That’s great. When Caleb is contributing in other ways, it really helps us. Obviously, he’s a pretty offensive-centric player. We can all get fixated on that a little bit.

“He made a hustle play today. I think he turned the ball over, blocked a layup attempt. For him to do that was huge growth. That’s a championship effort. I was really proud of him.”

His teammates, seniors Pelle Larsson and Oumar Ballo, gave Johnson credit for his leadership and how he handles himself before their game during Wednesday’s media availability.

“Maybe the way he carries himself every day,” Larsson said referencing Johnson. “He knows what it takes. He knows what to do every day, how to act. That is just contagious. I think the way he works hard every day and tries to get better, it’s been contagious.”

“Pelle just said it best, we’re lucky enough to have Ke (Keshad),” Ballo said. “He’s a tool, he’s well experienced. He’s been there. He knows what it takes to be there. We’re fortunate to have him. Happy he’s with us.”

Lloyd reiterated how much he enjoys coaching players of Love and Johnson’s caliber. Since they transferred during their senior seasons, Lloyd only gets limited timewith the transfer duo, despite wishing he had more time to coach and be around.

“My only regret is that I only get to coach them one year because I’ve loved coaching them,” Lloyd said. “They’re both just awesome dudes. They’re a joy to be around every day. They bring it every day. It’s been a ton of fun with them. Their experience has been significant to our success.”

Lloyd also knows what it takes to get to the championship game. He was a part of the Gonzaga Bulldogs’ 2021 National Championship appearance as the assistant coach under Mark Few. He credits Johnson’s truthful l belief in what constitutes championship-level success.

“Keshad has been very vocal,” Lloyd said. “I think his message to the guys is you don’t ever assume anything. It’s literally a one-game-at-a-time approach. You got to come out and be willing to lay it on the line in that one game. That’s been his message to the guys, which I think is simple but it’s beautiful because it’s very true.”

As the final seconds ticked on the clock, Lloyd and Monson shared a long embrace. With the friendship put aside, Lloyd knew the mission during those closing moments.

“You have to make a team like that that’s playing with emotion and positivity, you got to show them the end of their season,” Lloyd said. “You have to give them a glimpse of if they don’t start playing better, this could be it. You have to flip the script on them.

“I thought we were able to do that in the second half. They saw the end, and we didn’t.”

Arizona will hope to ride the momentum into Saturday’s game against either No. 7 Dayton or No. 10 Nevada and possibly into Glendale’s State Farm Stadium during the 2024 Men’s Final Four.

Hayden Cilley HAY-din SIL-lee (he/him)
Sports Reporter, Phoenix

Hayden Cilley expects to graduate in December 2024 with a master’s degree in mass communication. Cilley covered the Phoenix Mercury in 2022 for The Next Hoops and is writing and podcasting about the Mercury for PHNX Sports.