Salt Lake City — Arizona faced perhaps the toughest task of its season midway through the first half of its game against Saint Mary’s.
The Wildcats, who advanced to Saturday’s second round after breezing past North Dakota 100-82 on Thursday, were staring a 10-point deficit in the face.
They were mired in a woeful shooting performance and lost dynamic freshman Rawle Alkins to a finger injury.
David suddenly looked like Goliath, as the seventh-seeded Gaels were pummeling the larger-than-life frontcourt of Lauri Markkanen, Dusan Ristic and Chance Comanche, en route to a 22-12 lead.
An enraged Sean Miller bolted onto the blue-and-orange stained hardwood, calling a timeout to try to turn the tide.
It was then when Miller challenged his team, and do-it-all guard Kadeem Allen — the lone senior on the Wildcats roster — to step up to the challenge.
It’s safe to say they answered Miller’s bravado, going on a 22-12 run in the final 5:03 of the half to cut the Gaels’ lead to one at halftime.
The Wildcats, who improved to 32-4 with the win, had a remarkable turnaround in the game’s final stanza, shooting 24.6 percent better from the floor than in the woebegone opening 20 minutes.
They were able to fight back against a seemingly unstoppable inside attack from the guys from Moraga, Calif., outrebounding the Gaels 15-12, while also outscoring them 13-9 off turnovers.
The Wildcats also received a larger-than-life performance from Markkanen, who scored 16 points on 3-6 shooting, going 9-10 from the line, while also pulling down 11 boards.
Markkanen, Ristic, Allen and Trier all scored in double figures for the Wildcats, going a combined 18-34 from the field.
Miller spoke highly of the Gaels, as his Wildcats advanced to the Sweet 16 in San Jose, where they’ll face Xavier, who the Wildcats beat in the Sweet 16 in 2015, 68-60.
“I look at this as one of the great wins we’ve had in the tournament because of the team that we beat,” Miller said of Saint Mary’s. “We respect them a great deal.”
Miller also sung Alkins praises, tipping his cap to the freshman for gutting it out through a dislocated right index finger in the win.
“When you do that as a freshman and you’re in the NCAA Tournament, and you leave the game, No. 1 it’s not easy to come back into the game,” Miller said. “But to come back in the game and play well, says a lot about Rawle.”
Alkins, who finished the game with six points, had a huge defensive stop, standing firm on a three-on-one Gaels fast break, stuffing the ball and giving the Wildcats much-needed momentum.
The Brooklyn, N.Y. native described the pain in his finger as being an 8.5 on a scale of 1-10.
He also said the dislocation was the first he’s suffered in his years on the hardwood.
He said there was never a doubt in his mind that he’d be back, having a trainer tape up his dislocated right index and middle fingers together on his shooting hand.
“I like to fight through adversity and I like to think of myself as a warrior and a savage,” Alkins said. “I wanted to win, that was the biggest thing.”
Alkins and company will need more of the same on Thursday, as they face off against the 11th-seeded Xavier Musketeers, who beat Florida State 91-66 on Saturday.
Junior point guard Parker Jackson-Cartwright, who scored three points for the Wildcats, expects a battle in San Jose.
“They’re a tough team and they’re resilient as well,” Jackson-Cartwright said. “They’ve been playing really well this year. We know that it’s going to be a blood bath.”