SACRAMENTO, Calif.—Play with fire enough, you’ll eventually get burned.
In a season during which Arizona showed far too often a penchant for playing down to its competition, when it came time to put that aside for a deep postseason run the problem came back once again.
The Wildcats went scoreless for the final 4:42 in losing 59-55 to 15th-seeded Princeton on Friday afternoon in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. The loss ends the UA’s season at 28-7 and makes it the first program in NCAA history with multiple first-round defeats as a No. 2 seed.
Arizona led 55-50 with 4:43 left on a basket by Azuolas Tubelis, who had 22 points, but that was the final time it would score. The Wildcats missed their final seven shots and turned it over three times in the last four minutes, including twice after falling behind for the first time with 2:03 to go when Princeton’s Ryan Langborg scored on a drive for a 56-55 advantage.
The Tigers (22-8) clinched the game by making three of four free throws in the final 20.7 seconds, having been 0 for 1 from the line before then.
The UA shot 42.1 percent for the game, 39.3 percent in the second half, and was 3 of 16 from 3 with no makes in the second half on six attempts.
Oumar Ballo, playing with a broken left hand, had 13 points and 12 rebounds as he and Tubelis were 15 of 30 from the field while Arizona’s guards were a combined 9 of 27 overall and 1 of 14 from 3.
Arizona led 31-30 at the half, watching a 9-point lead dwindle after going scoreless the final 3:58. The drought got to almost five before Tubelis hit a pair of free throws after being fouled on a drive after a steal.
Another steal, by Courtney Ramey, led to a layup from him as the Wildcats began the second half on an 11-2 run for a 41-32 lead with 15:41 left. Princeton used a timeout in that start, and another with 13:06 to go at the outset of a 6-0 UA run to go up 47-35.
Ballo’s putback with 8:05 remaining gave the Wildcats a 10-point lead, and also gave him a double-double, but Princeton scored seven points in 94 seconds to get within 51-48 on a 3-pointer from Blake Peters.
The Tigers used their final timeout with 5:10 to go after a steal by Caden Pierce, who called it while on the ground. Pierce was called for a charge after play resumed, his fourth foul, and Arizona capitalized with a basket from Tubelis and a 55-50 edge.
Princeton got within 55-54 on a Langborg jumper with 3:37 left, then after the teams traded four misses the Tigers went up for good. The go-ahead basket was Princeton’s ninth attempt at taking the lead, having missed all eight shots before in that scenario.
Arizona built a 14-6 lead less than six minutes into the game but then went more than three without scoring. Princeton, which missed its first five 3-point attempts, made two in a row to get within 18-16 with 8:53 left in the first half and had a chance to tie or take the lead on its next possession.
The Wildcats five of their next seven shots, including a 3-point play by Tubelis that put him over the 1,500-point mark for his career and a 3 from Kerr Kriisa, in building a 31-22 lead.
The momentum quickly swung, though, as Princeton went on an 8-0 run to cut it to 31-30 and had multiple chances to take the lead before the break but came up short each time.
The UA lost to No. 15 seed Santa Clara in 1993 (and then made the Final Four a year later) and has now had 15 first-round exits in 33 NCAA tourney appearances.