If not for Nico Mannion’s last-second heroics on Thursday, the Arizona Wildcats might have suffered their first loss of the season.
On Friday night Mannion decided not to wait as long to ensure his team would get to play for its first holiday tournament championship in five years.
Arizona’s freshman point guard scored a career-high 24 points, including 13 in the first nine minutes of the second half, to lead the 14th-ranked Wildcats to a 92-82 win over Penn in the Wooden Legacy semifinals in Anaheim, Calif.
The Wildcats (8-0) will face Wake Forest on Sunday night for the title. A win over the Demon Deacons (5-2) would give Arizona its first holiday tourney championship since it won the 2014 Maui Invitational.
Mannion, whose running hook shot with 2.1 seconds left gave Arizona a 93-91 win over Pepperdine on Thursday, was 11 of 14 from the field via a mix of floaters, drives and long jumpers. He made his first seven shots in the second half despite going to the locker room briefly after appearing to injure himself on a baseline drive.
After returning to the court with 13:11 left, though, Mannion scored on three straight possessions to put the Wildcats up 68-52.
Arizona shot 58.6 percent for the game, with Chase Jeter going 8 of 9 for a season-high 19 points while Zeke Nnaji had 16 and Josh Green added 14, as the Wildcats had double-digit leads twice in the first half and for much of the second half yet could never put Penn (4-3) away.
The Wildcats held a 41-33 edge at halftime but the lead quickly dwindled to three as the Quakers kept managing to get an open man underneath the basket thanks to its ball movement. But the game turned when Penn’s leading scorer, senior forward AJ Brodeur, picked up his third and fourth foul within a second of each other and had to sit with 17:07 left.
Arizona responded by outscoring the Penn 13-2 to go up 58-42 before Brodeur returned with 14:24 to go.
A 16-point lead with 10:36 left got down to 82-78 with 3:03 to go as Penn caught fire from the perimeter. The Quakers were 10 of 20 from three in the second half, making six in a row at one point, but Mannion hit a stepback jumper with 2:29 remaining to get the edge back to six.
Mannion then threaded the needle to Josh Green for a running layup to make it 86-79 with 1:57 left.
I had to watch this clip several times to figure out how Nico Mannion fit that pass in there pic.twitter.com/Q7bAUHV6tZ— Ryan Kelapire (@RKelapire) November 30, 2019
Penn scored on six of its first eight possessions to start the night, the only empty ones because of turnovers. The Quakers hit their first five shots to lead 13-9 but then went cold from the field, missing 12 of 13 as Arizona went on a 17-3 run to lead 26-16 with 7:55 left.
A 9-0 run got Penn within one at 28-27 with 3:53 to go, then it went up 31-30 on a pair of free throws by Brodeur with 2:29 to go. Arizona responded with the next nine points and finished on an 11-2 run to lead 41-33 at the half.