SAN DIEGO—It was far from the prettiest performance. But after waiting four years to play, and five to win, do style points really matter?
Arizona won its first NCAA Tournament game since 2017, easily handling Wright State 87-70 in the first round on Friday afternoon at Viejas Arena. The top-seeded Wildcats (32-3) will now face No. 9 TCU, which beat No. 8 Seton Hall 69-42 on Friday night, at 6:40 p.m. PT Sunday.
The UA shot 55 percent from the field and 3-point range, its 11 3s tying the school tourney record, while holding the 16th-seeded Raiders (22-14) to 34.8 percent shooting and blocking nine shots. But the Wildcats turned it over 19 times, 10 coming in the first 13 minutes of the game, preventing them from having a bigger final margin.
“We had a lot of turnovers today, and it was from everybody,” coach Tommy Lloyd said. “We’ve just got to tighten up. I don’t want these guys to play conservatively. Turnovers on offense kill your efficiency.”
Still, the 17-point win was its largest as a No. 1 seed since beating Vermont 80-51 to open the 2003 NCAA Tournament.
Bennedict Mathurin had 18 points and Dalen Terry added 16, with Terry breaking his previous best of 15 set against UCLA in the Pac-12 tourney final, while Christian Koloko went for 17 points, 13 rebounds, a career-high 6 assists and 5 blocks, the first player to ever put up such a line in NCAA tourney history.
Azuolas Tubelis had 13, Pelle Larsson 11 and Justin Kier added 8 points, 4 rebounds and 6 assists, starting his third straight game in place of Kerr Kriisa. Kriisa, who suffered a sprained right ankle late against Stanford in the Pac-12 quarterfinals, warmed up but did not play.
Lloyd said the “calculus” that went into not playing Kriisa was based on him still not looking ready, though he said he’s hopeful about playing Sunday.
“Didn’t feel like he was quite ready to play and was hoping we could get through this game without needing him, and we were,” Lloyd said. “He’s closer to playing than not playing.”
Arizona led 42-31 at the half, going scoreless over the final 3:50 before the break, but Tubelis hit a layup on the Wildcats’ first possession of the second half after Koloko blocked Wright State’s first shot. But the sloppy play resumed not long after, allowing the Raiders cut the deficit to seven, at 49-42, with 16:38 left on a 3-point play by Grant Basile.
The lead was eight when the UA finally put together one of its big runs, running off 12 in a row that included 3s by Terry and Mathurin, to lead 64-44 with 11:37 to go.
A 3 by Larsson made it 73-52 with 8:19 left, and when Terry drained a triple with 7:01 to go it matched the UA tourney record set by the 1988 Final Four team and matched by the 1997 national title team.
The UA was up 18-5 after a 9-0 run, making eight of its first 10 shots, and led by as many as 16 in the first half before falling into one of its familiar just-before-halftime lulls where it missed its final six shots, dropping its shooting percentage to 58 percent for the half.
Turnovers were a bigger problem for Arizona in the first half than Wright State’s defense. The Wildcats gave it away 10 times, all in the first 13 minutes of the half, while scoring on 12 of their other 13 possessions in that span.