PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — Arizona’s defense — or perceived lack thereof — muted the Wildcats’ victory celebration for their NCAA Tournament opener.
The second seed in the West jumped out early and cruised to a 93-72 victory over No. 15 seed Texas Southern on Thursday. Rondae Hollis-Jefferson led the Wildcats with 23 points — 16 in the first half — and 10 rebounds.
While Arizona was efficient overall, coach Sean Miller suggested the team’s defense wasn’t where it should be.
“I think the point is that we have to get back to being an excellent defensive team, which takes a lot of effort and concentration,” he said. “We certainly can do it. But whoever we play in the next round we know is going to be a formidable opponent. We want to make sure when that game ends we feel good about what we did, especially on defense.”
Senior guard T.J. McConnell called it Arizona’s worst defensive effort of the season. Forward Brandon Ashley said that even with the sizable lead, the Wildcats know better than to let up on defense in the tournament.
“We have to make sure we’re locked in and focused,” Ashley said. “Because at this point anybody in this tournament has the ability to beat you. We can’t take anyone lightly.”
Offensively, it was another story: Pac-12 Freshman of the Year Stanley Johnson added 22 points for the Wildcats (32-3), who led by as many as 27 points at Portland’s Moda Center.
Ashley added 14 points. The junior forward missed Arizona’s run to the Elite Eight in last year’s NCAA Tournament because of a foot injury, but was named the conference tournament’s most outstanding player after averaging 19.6 points and 6.3 rebounds in three games.
Arizona goes on to meet No. 10 seed Ohio State on Saturday. The Buckeyes defeated seventh-seeded Virginia Commonwealth 75-72 in overtime.
Madarious Gibbs had 15 points for Texas Southern (22-13), which won an automatic bid as the winner of the Southwestern Athletic Conference Tournament. Gibbs, also the Tigers’ top scorer during the regular season, was the SWAC player of the year.
“They’re a great they’re a great basketball team,” he said. “With the size and athleticism that they have, it’s hard to compete with them but we tried our hardest.”
It was the 12th straight win for the Wildcats, who were coming off an 80-52 thrashing of Oregon in the Pac-12 Tournament championship game last weekend.
Texas Southern was making its second straight appearance in the tournament after a 62-58 victory over Southern for the SWAC Tournament title. Last season the Tigers fell to Cal Poly in their NCAA Tournament opener.
The Wildcats rolled through last year’s tournament with victories over Weber State, Gonzaga and San Diego State before falling to Wisconsin in the round of eight. Gone from that team are Aaron Gordon and Nick Johnson.
The teams had never met, but Arizona was wary going into the game because of Texas Sothern’s regular-season upsets at Michigan State and Kansas State. The Wildcats, meanwhile, had dropped games to unranked challengers UNLV, Oregon State and Arizona State.
The Wildcats took a 15-2 lead, subduing the smaller Tigers from the start. Ashley’s dish to Dusan Ristic under the basket for a layup extended the lead to 17-4.
Deverell Biggs’ steal and fast-break layup narrowed the gap slightly to 21-11 for Texas Southern. But Arizona responded to go up 40-20 on Hollis-Jefferson’s dunk with 4:15 left in the half.
Hollis-Jefferson led all players with 16 points and 7 rebounds at the break, and the Wildcats led 54-33. Tonnie Collier had eight points in 7 first-half minutes off the bench for the Tigers. He finished with 10 points.
Arizona stretched the lead to 66-39 on Elliott Pitts’ layup in the second half, but coach Sean Miller was judicious with his starters. The Wildcats outrebounded the Tigers 35-19.
“They’re one of the best teams we’ve ever played,” Biggs said. “They’re up there with the Gonzagas, the Michigan States, the Kansas States.”
Arizona: Arizona has been to the NCAA Tournament 32 times with a 51-30 record. The Wildcats have advanced 16 times to the Sweet 16, 10 times to the Elite Eight, four times to the Final Four. The Wildcats won the national championship in 1997.
Texas Southern: Coach Mike Davis led Indiana on a surprising run to the national championship game in 2002. The Hoosiers, the fifth seed led by Jared Jeffries, fell to top-seeded Maryland 64-52 in the final. … Texas Southern forward Malcolm Riley, who was cut above the eye in the SWAC championship game and required seven stitches, played with a bandage.
After the game Davis said he believes Arizona and Gonzaga will make it to the Final Four. The Tigers visited the Zags on the road during their tough nonconference schedule and fell 94-54.
As Hollis-Jefferson goes, the Wildcats usually follow. The 6-foot-7 sophomore had his third double-double of the season, and fifth of his career. His fast start Thursday was a good sign.
“I know I rub off on the guys,” he said. “I have that impact on them.
Arizona: Plays the winner of Thursday’s game between VCU and Ohio State.
Texas Southern: Season over.
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