On Saturday afternoon, the Arizona Wildcats and Gonzaga Bulldogs met for just the seventh time. Several of the previous six occasions, including last season's meeting, are known as instant classics. Saturday's affair proved to be no different as 19th-ranked Arizona mounted a comeback in an intense second half and defeated 13th-ranked Gonzaga, 68-63.
The first half was dominated by Gonzaga's two forwards, Kyle Wiltjer and Domantas Sabonis. They combined for 32 of the team's 38 first half points, including the first 28. Gonzaga took a 10 point lead to the break and Arizona appeared to be hanging on by a thread.
In the second half, Arizona came alive, quieting the raucous Kennel crowd. After shooting 32% from the field in the first half, the Wildcats shot 50% in the second half, led by Gabe York's 14 point, four 3-pointer half. On the defensive end, Arizona forced Gonzaga to make continuous errors and capitalized, doubling Gonzaga in fast break points and points off turnovers. In a dramatic final few minutes, Arizona did it all on the defensive end and just enough on the offensive end to pull off a huge road victory.
A few notes from the game...
What a road debut: This was a tremendous test as the first true road game of the Wildcats' season. Entering today, Gonzaga had won 18 straight games at home against non-conference opponents. It is a very difficult place to travel to and win. Arizona did just that. Not only did they win, they survived a very rough start on both ends of the floor. This was a HUGE character building game. With their most experienced player, a four-year starter, sitting on the bench, and a 10 point deficit at halftime in one of the toughest places to play in the country, nobody could have blamed this team for folding in the second half. Instead, this team rose to the occasion, outscoring Gonzaga 40-25 in the second half.
Oh, Gabe: We all know Gabe York tends to suffer from irrational confidence from time to time. His first half dunk attempt is large evidence of that. That's the downside to Gabe's irrational confidence. The upside? His absolute tear in the first ten minutes of the second half. York pulled the Wildcats out of a 10 point hole, and a terrible first half shooting slump. He scored 14 points in the first ten minutes of the second half, hitting four 3's. He wouldn't end up scoring again, but that run he went on put Arizona in a position to succeed and sucked the noise right out of McCarthey Athletic Center.
Tale of two halves: As much as the offense flipped a switch in the second half, it was the defense that really stepped up late and led the Cats to this important victory. Kyle Wiltjer and Domantas Sabonis absolutely had their way with Arizona in the first half, appearing to be unstoppable. On the surface, it would appear the second half wasn't that different. Wiltjer finished with 33 points and 9 rebounds, Sabonis with 18 points and 16 rebounds. But the two Gonzaga forwards had absolutely nothing come easy in half number two. Even when Arizona switched to a small lineup, subbing Elliott Pitts for Dusan Ristic and basically playing Ryan Anderson at center, they made the Bulldogs work for everything down low, while Gonzaga couldn't get anything to go from outside the paint.
This is by far the most important victory of this young season for Arizona. Next up: Arizona squares off against Fresno State on Wednesday night at McKale Center.