Prior to heading to Maui, Tommy Lloyd said Arizona’s defense was “growing” into something that could be pretty good. On Tuesday night, the D hit puberty.
The 14th-ranked Wildcats overcame massive foul trouble by playing lockdown defense, holding No. 17 San Diego State to season lows in points and field goal shooting and pulling away late in an 87-70 win in the Maui Invitational semifinals.
Arizona (5-0) will play for its first Maui title since 2014 when it faces No. 10 Creighton, a 90-87 win over No. 9 Arkansas, at 3 p.m. MT Wednesday. The Wildcats haven’t lost a Maui final since 1997.
Kerr Kriisa and Courtney Ramey had 21 apiece, combining for eight 3-pointers, with Ramey making all five triples and going 8 of 12 from the field. Azuolas Tubelis, Oumar Ballo and Cedric Henderson Jr. also scored in double figures as the Wildcats shot 58.6 percent, tied for the best field goal percentage against the Aztecs in the past 13 seasons.
Yet it was how the UA defended SDSU (4-1) that really stood out. It held the Aztecs to 38.1 percent shooting overall and 3 of 19 from 3, this after hitting 10 triples and shooting over 50 percent in the Maui opener against Ohio State.
And Arizona had to do it while dealing with its first significant foul trouble of the season. Four starters picked up their third foul in the first 3:49 of the second half, with Ballo and Tubelis getting to four midway through the second half and Ballo eventually fouling out. That lessened their impact, though they combined for 26 points (on 11-of-14 shooting) and 16 rebounds.
Ramey and Kriisa filled the offensive void, with the former posting his first 20-point game since Feb. 2021 with Texas and the latter making as many shots from inside the arc as beyond while going 6 of 6 from the line.
Since coming off his season-opening 3-game suspension, Ramey is 14 of 21 from the field and 8 of 10 from 3.
Arizona led 37-33 at the half, getting outscored 18-6 over the final five minutes. It was similar to Monday’s win over Cincinnati when the Wildcats went scoreless the last three minutes of the first half.
SDSU took its first lead at 42-40 with 17:40 left after Tubelis threw it away and then fouled Keshad Johnson on a breakaway dunk, making it a 27-9 run dating back to the Wildcats’ biggest first-half lead.
It was Tubelis’ third foul, joining Ramey after he got his third just two minutes into the half, then Pelle Larsson and Ballo picked up their third before the first media timeout. Yet Arizona managed to retake the lead during this spate of fouls, getting a 3 from Larsson, a 3-point play from Ballo and then four straight from Kriisa to lead 50-43 with 15 minutes remaining.
Ramey’s fourth 3 capped a 15-3 to make it 55-45 with 12:51 to go, and Arizona still led by 10 when Tubelis and Ramey got their fourth fouls in a 46-second span. The Wildcats still maintained a comfortable edge, though, with Kriisa scoring seven in a row including a 3 to make it 69-56 with 7:43 left.
The UA built an 8-point lead midway through the first half then used an 11-2 run to lead 31-15 with 5:06 before the break. That run included this ridiculous pass/catch/score between Kriisa and Tubelis:
But the Wildcats turned it over 10 times in the first half, negating 51.6 percent shooting, giving it away four times in the last three minutes of the half. They also had three starters with two fouls, causing the defensive intensity to go down.
Arizona and Creighton have only played twice before, splitting a home-and-home in the late 1960s.