SALT LAKE CITY — There’s a saying about March that the key to a championship run is the ability to survive and advance.
It was Arizona’s first 100-point performance in the NCAA Tournament since 2001, when they beat Eastern Illinois University in the first round, 101-76.
The Wildcats found success in waves against the Fighting Hawks, grabbing a 16-point halftime lead before North Dakota chiseled it down to seven midway through the second half.
Arizona head coach Sean Miller, who improved to 12-5 in the single-elimination tournament during his eight-year tenure in Tucson, praised the effort turned in by the 15th-seeded Fighting Hawks.
“I want to congratulate North Dakota,” Miller said. “They have a really good team, and when we were preparing for them I certainly knew and really tried to let these guys know from an offensive perspective they’re very difficult to defend.”
The Fighting Hawks’ offense had its fair share of firepower, with guards Quinton Hooker, Corey Baldwin, and Geno Crandall combining to score 49 points, while forward Drick Bernstine scored 20 points with 15 rebounds.
Junior guard Parker Jackson-Cartwright, who scored eight points with five rebounds and four assists Thursday, was impressed by the effort turned in by the team from Sioux Falls.
“They played like they had nothing to lose and like their season was on the line tonight,” Jackson-Cartwright said. “They came out and they played extremely hard and they made it difficult on us all night.”
Both Miller and his players expressed disappointment at the way the Wildcats fared on the defensive end of the court Friday.
The Wildcats surrendered 12 second-chance points Thursday off nine Fighting Hawks offensive rebounds.
They also surrendered 10 three-pointers on 22 attempts, with Hooker and Baldwin combining to make nine for the underdogs from North Dakota.
Kadeem Allen, the lone senior in the Wildcats’ starting five, said he expects the team uses Thursday’s game as a learning tool.
“We played OK. We didn’t play as well as we have at points this season and we didn’t bring our identity with us,” Allen said. “So we just have to rebound the ball better, play better defense and get back in transition.”
Miller said in his postgame press conference that he thought his team’s defensive effort was hit-or-miss.
“We had a stretch there in the first half where we were playing maybe our best. And we had times where we didn’t,” Miller explained. “And when we weren’t at our best defensively they certainly took advantage of it.”
The Wildcats will look to punch their ticket to San Jose for the Sweet 16 at 5:45 p.m. MT on Saturday, against longtime foe Saint Mary’s.
The Gaels won their opening game Thursday over Virginia Commonwealth University, 85-77, and are now 29-4 this season.
Both teams are familiar with each other, as they used to play as secret scrimmage partners for years.
Jackson-Cartwright expects a battle from the Gaels on Saturday night.
“They’re extremely physical and tough,” he said. “They don’t beat themselves. And they have an extremely experienced coach. It’s not their first go-around. So they’re going to come out playing hard and give us a run for our money.”
Miller expects the Gaels to play at a more methodical, controlled pace offensively than the Fighting Hawks did Thursday.
“Once they get in the half court they have a lot of movement that follows it,” Miller said. “Saint Mary’s is more deliberate, but they really execute. And certainly shoot the basketball.”
Allen says the Wildcats will be ready to play, no matter whether it’s against the Fighting Hawks, the Gaels, or whomever the tournament throws at them going forward.
“All year we’ve played team basketball and guys have stepped up, especially when it’s win or go home,” Allen said. “We don’t want to go home. It’s just that feeling from last year when we played Wichita State. We’re trying to encourage these guys to bring it every single game.”