SAN ANTONIO—We kind of all knew this was how it would end, didn’t we?
Arizona had slow starts throughout the season. It also had problems with turnovers and struggled keeping teams off the offensive glass. Rarely all at the same time, though. Until now.
Having all those flaws resurface during the Sweet 16 spelled doom for the Wildcats, who never led in a 72-60 loss to Houston on Thursday night at AT&T Center. Their completely unexpected run this season, from unranked to a No. 1 seed, ended with a 33-4 record.
Arizona committed 14 turnovers, which fifth-seeded Houston (32-5) turned into 24 points, while it only managed six points off 12 Cougars miscues (with four of those points coming in the final minutes. Houston also converted 12 offensive rebounds into 19 second-chance points, and the 10-point lead they built early in the first half was never relinquished.
Dalen Terry scored a career-high 17 points while Bennedict Mathurin had 15, passing Michael Dickerson to move into 10th on the school single-season scoring list. But Arizona’s big men, such a source of dominant play all season, combined for 14 points on 3-of-17 shooting.
Azuolas Tubelis was 0 for 8 from the field, after going 2 of 7 in the second-round win over TCU.
The UA shot 33.3 percent as a team, its third-lowest rate of the season and tied for the fourth-worst in an NCAA Tournament game in program history. Its 60 points were tied for the seventh-fewest in an NCAA game and only one above its season-low in scoring.
“They’re the (No. 10) defense in the country for a reason,” UA coach Tommy Lloyd said. “They’re a hard team to get runs on because offensively they control the tempo and they’re great offensive rebounding.”
Houston shot 46 percent and made 9 3-pointers, almost all of them coming at critical points in the game. Jamal Shead led the Cougars with 21 points, while Kyler Edwards had 19 including five 3s.
Arizona trailed 34-28 at the half, getting its final points before the break when Koloko was fouled by Houston’s Reggie Chaney with 0.6 seconds left. After being outscored 18-4 in the paint in the first half, the Wildcats devoted their offense to getting it inside early and often in the second half.
That resulted in its first nine points coming off layups or free throws before Terry hit a 3 to get Arizona within 42-40 with 13:27 left.
The Wildcats had a chance to take the lead, but Terry was called for a charge and then Shead hit a 3 on the other end to put Houston back up 5. The Cougars got the lead back up to 10 not long after, and Edwards’ corner 3 made it 59-47 with 7:46 to go.
“We came out in the second half and started playing our game, and we fell back to what we were doing the first half,” said Christian Koloko, who had 10 points but was just 2 of 6 from the field after a career-high 28 against TCU in the second round.
A Kerr Kriisa 3 got the UA within eight with 3:44 left, but Houston got a dunk from Josh Carlton 25 seconds later. The Wildcats forced turnovers on three straight possessions, cutting it to 64-58 with 2:12 to go, but after the third takeaway Mathurin lost the ball in the lane and Edwards drained a 3 on the other end to get the lead back to nine with 1:26 remaining.
Houston, which came in shooting only 66.7 percent from the line, made 12 of 16 free throws in the second half to keep Arizona from catching up.
Arizona started off slow, as it has many times this season, missing 10 of its first 12 shots and turning it over three times in the first six minutes, falling behind 14-4. But it also drew three fouls on Houston in a 36-second span at one point, saddling Cougars wing Taze Moore—who had 21 against Illinois in the second round—with three fouls by the midway point of the first half.
Two other Houston starters got their second foul before halftime.
Back-to-back 3-pointers by Larsson and Justin Kier cut the deficit to 19-15 with 9:10 left in the first half. A pair of Terry free throws got the Wildcats within 23-19 with 7:01 left but Houston scored six in a row to build the margin back to 10.
Mathurin drained a three with 1:35 left in the first half, ending a stretch of more than six minutes without a field goal for Arizona, while Houston only made one shot in the final 5:30 before halftime.
Arizona’s 33 wins tie it for third-most in school history, while Houston will try to make a second consecutive Final Four when it takes on No. 2 Villanova (29-7) in Sunday’s South Region final.