It didn’t matter.
Buffalo’s hellacious offense still got what it wanted, and now Arizona is on the first flight back to Tucson as a one-and-done in the NCAA Tournament.
The No. 13 seeded Bulls shot 55 percent and 50 percent from 3, as they routed the No. 4 seeded Wildcats 89-68 in the first round.
“We knew we were playing an excellent basketball team .... that we didn’t necessarily match up well with,” Arizona coach Sean Miller said. “We prepared hard but we ran into a team that played well on a night where we didn’t. ... It wasn’t a lack of effort, certainly wasn’t a lack of wanting to advance. We got beat.”
After 12 lead changes in the first half, the Bulls commanded the second half, outscoring the Wildcats by 19. The Boise crowd, pulling for the underdogs, cheered them on.
“They punched us in the mouth from the beginning and even though we were down two at the half, it felt like we were down 15,” said UA point guard Parker Jackson-Cartwright. “They stole our pride from us today.”
Arizona’s defense looked much-improved in the Pac-12 Tournament last week in Las Vegas, but regressed to its usual self in Boise.
The Bulls beat the Wildcats off the dribble, confused them in transition, and even outrebounded them.
Buffalo made 13 layups and sank 15 3s, most of which were wide-open looks. The Bulls averaged 1.3 points per possession, Arizona’s worst defensive performance all year.
“Coming off the heels of the Pac-12 Tournament , we felt like we had it rolling,” Jackson-Cartwright said. “… And for it to end like this is just disappointing.”
Arizona’s saving grace in this game was supposed to be its towering frontcourt of Deandre Ayton and Dusan Ristic, who had a major height advantage on their counterparts.
But Arizona simply couldn’t get them the ball.
“They were pressuring us, our guards, like no other,” Jackson-Cartwright said. “We expected it and our coaches prepared us for it. We game-planned for it, we watched it on film, but it’s obviously different when you’re out there and they’re guarding you at 90 feet. They did a really good job of that. It was hard to feed the post.”
Ristic had 16 points on 7-of-8 shooting in his final game as Wildcat. Ayton, who will likely be the No. 1 pick in June’s NBA Draft, finished with 14 points and 13 rebounds on 13 shots.
“When you get someone like him, you want to go all the way, right?” Miller said of Ayton. “And when you lose in the first round that’s a tough pill to swallow. But he was fantastic. He’s one of a kind.
“Tonight it wasn’t as if we got away from him; it was just that the other team did a great job. I’ll use the analogy of a great wide receiver. If the pass rush and the blitzes just continues to get to the quarterback, then that receiver is not going to get as many catches or opportunities. And tonight in the basketball terms their ball pressure, taking us out of our ability to get him the ball, and it certainly played to their advantage and they deserve a lot of credit.”
Allonzo Trier scored 10 points on 15 shots and no one else scored in double figures. But with the way Arizona was defending, its offense didn’t have a chance to overcome Buffalo’s firepower.
“It’s a disappointing time for us,” Ristic said. “We didn’t expect to lose this tournament. And the last four years, like, doesn’t feel good right now. It’s frustrating. It’s something we didn’t expect.”
The Bulls will face No. 5 seeded Kentucky in the Round of 32 on Saturday. Arizona faces a dark future.
The Wildcats are losing their entire starting five, including the best player the program has ever seen, have zero incoming recruits, and still have the federal investigation into college basketball hanging over their heads.
That’s why this team was seen as the Wildcats’ last chance in who knows how long to make a deep NCAA Tournament run.
Instead, it was a handed a 21-point loss to a team from the MAC in the first round.
A sign of things to come?
“Not at all,” Jackson-Cartwright said. “As long as they got Sean Miller at the helm, I think Zona is going to be good forever. I truly mean that. He’s a great coach. He’s a great man. And he gets the best out of his players, whoever’s in the program. And there’s good talent coming up in the program, so we’ll be just fine.”
“We have a lot of tough-minded guys who are workers,” said freshman forward Emmanuel Akot. “And I think this loss motivates us even more.”
Follow Ryan Kelapire on Twitter at @RKelapire