LAHAINA, Hawaii — For a half of basketball, Arizona kept pace with No. 2 Gonzaga. Then the sleeping giant woke up, spelling doom for the Wildcats en route to a 91-74 defeat in front of a raucous crowd at the Lahaina Civic Center.
It was a tale of two halves to say the least in a first half plagued by fouls, leading to game absent of any sort of flow as both squads relied on a steady diet of free throws during the latter stages of the first half.
The Wildcats had a distinct advantage from the charity stripe as the Zags committed an uncharacteristic 16 fouls and 10 turnovers in the first half. That allowed Arizona to cling to a 45-37 halftime lead, despite not making a single field goal in the final 5:42.
Senior point guard Justin Coleman continued his role as Coach Sean Miller’s main catalyst on offense. He played like a man possessed in the first half, pouring in 17 points that included going 3 for 5 from distance and 6 for 6 from the free throw line.
Aside from Coleman, the Wildcats had little offensive firepower to speak of. UA’s starting big men, Ryan Luther and Chase Jeter, were just 1 for 6 shooting in the game. Luther led the team with 8 rebounds, but continues to disappear at times.
Brandon Williams, who had 15 points and two first-half steals, put on his best showing in Hawaii.
“We knew Gonzaga was obviously an excellent team and for 20 minutes I thought we played with a lot of effort and played a great first half. For us to have 45 points we did a lot of things well in the first half and I thought had them on their heels about as much as you can,” said Miller.
The Wildcats took their biggest lead at 50-37 after a pair of free throws and a 3-pointer by Coleman. It was all for naught as Arizona’s 13 point advantage evaporated quickly.
The end result was a 54-29 dismantling by Gonzaga in the second half.
“Obviously we were overwhelmed in the second half. Their defense, they started to switch both on and off the ball, not easy to do but the quickness that those two big guys had is very impressive. I mean they can switch out on guards, they really took us out of what we wanted to do and obviously a tale of two halves and they were the far superior team.”
While the Arizona Wildcats were reeling, a technical foul on Chase Jeter, also his fifth personal foul of the game, forced Coach Miller to play small ball.
With the Wildcats in front 54-53, a pair of free throws by Zach Norvell Jr. gave the Zags a 55-54 advantage. The rejuvenated Zags completely outmatched the Wildcats 38-20 from that point.
“I think the emotions got the best of Chase. He has to control his emotions in that situation. Really, we’re not a deep team as it is, especially up front, losing him didn’t help. And it really gave them adjust an extra surge of momentum at a very unique time in the game. Even though they were the better team through the first eight minutes of the second half, I don’t have it in front of me, but at the 12 minute mark it was still really either way.”
A 3 by Coleman at the 11-minute mark knotted the score at 56 as Arizona committed 6 turnovers to zero turnovers by Gonzaga to start the second half. It was another timely 3 by Coleman from to top of the key that put the Wildcats in front by a score of 61- 60.
In the end, Gonzaga’s second half barrage left a befuddled and inept Arizona team searching for answers offensively.
“We started to drive and not, like coach says, drive to kick for others, we started to drive and kick for our own, which we shouldn’t have done, that’s what got us in the hole we were in. So they just started to switch one through four and one through five and it took us out of our offense,” said Coleman on Arizona recording a dismal three assists.
Gonzaga, who will battle Duke in the championship game, dominated the Wildcats in second chance points, 16-2.
Up next for Arizona is a Wednesday clash against the eighth-ranked Auburn Tigers in the third place game.