SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Arizona’s freshman combination of Lauri Markkanen and Rawle Alkins didn’t act their age Thursday night in their NCAA Tournament debut. The pair combined for 40 points as the Wildcats began what’s expected to be a deep postseason run.
Markkanen scored 20 points as second-seeded Arizona cruised to a 100-82 victory over No. 15 North Dakota in the first round of the NCAA’s West Regional. It was just the third time Arizona has scored 100-plus points in their NCAA Tournament history.
“I’m so proud of these two guys,” Arizona coach Sean Miller said. “I’ve answered a lot of questions on how we’ve weathered a lot of the obstacles and adversity that we dealt with this season. A lot of times I answered by, we have three freshmen that are excellent players, but bring no drama to the table and they do their job and are consistent.
“Tonight was a great example. First round of the NCAA Tournament, you’d expect freshmen sometimes to have a struggle. Lauri and Rawle were our two best players tonight.”
Arizona used a 13-1 run early in the first half to take 24-13 lead and never looked back. The Wildcats (31-4) lead 53-37 at halftime thanks to a dominant 16-point half from Markkanen and a 61.1 shooting percentage in the first 20 minutes.
The Wildcats will face seventh-seeded Saint Mary’s in the second round on Saturday. The Gaels beat VCU 85-77.
It was almost as if Arizona’s players were taking turns scoring. Allonzo Trier continued his late-season success and had a highlight tomahawk dunk to push the lead to 44-27. He finished with 18 points.
Alkins was aggressive early and scored 20 on 8-for-8 shooting while Dusan Ristic started hot in the second half and added 12 points.
“We just wanted to play hard and show that we belong here,” Alkins said.
Markkanen, who’s expected to be a high first-round NBA draft pick, was a constant as North Dakota couldn’t match his size (7-foot, 230 pounds) or skill.
Quinton Hooker led the Fighting Hawks (22-10) with 25 points and Drick Bernstine added 20.
“They really dominated the paint in the first half,” North Dakota coach Brian Jones said. “We thought we did a good job of fighting and trying to make them battle for catches further out on the floor. But they were so big. They would go and counter it and shoot right over the top of us.”
North Dakota played with energy throughout and never quit, but was simply overmatched. Arizona was bigger and outscored the Fighting Hawks 54-34 in the paint. North Dakota never seemed to be able to get easy baskets.
“It was good for us to just let them know that it wasn’t going to be easy coming to play North Dakota,” Hooker said. “It was going to be a fight.”
“We utilized our size,” Miller said. “That’s important in a game like tonight, to play to your strengths.
“We wish we felt better about our defensive effort and we’d have put together one heck of a game.”
North Dakota: The Fighting Hawks were playing with house money in their first NCAA Tournament appearance as a Division I program. They joined Division I full time in 2012-13. North Dakota played hard, but just didn’t have the athletes to hang with the Pac-12 champs.
Arizona: The Wildcats did exactly what they were supposed to do, outside of taking their foot off the gas in the second half. This is a team that won the Pac-12 regular season and tournament and has Final Four aspirations. Arizona has advanced to the Elite Eight three times under coach Sean Miller, but has not reached the Final Four since 2001.
OUT OF SIGHT, OUT OF MIND
The 2016 tournament was a disappointment for Arizona as the Wildcats were bounced in the first round. The program hadn’t lost in the first round since 2008, though it missed the tournament in 2010 and 2012. A strong start is good for the psyche.
Arizona will face No. 7 seed Saint Mary’s (29-4) in the second round on Saturday.
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