LOS ANGELES (AP) — T.J. McConnell shook off his terrible first half and a Xavier defender with equal poise, sliding around a screen and finding an open 3-pointer.
The senior’s shot split the net in the waning minutes and he put Arizona on its way back to the brink of the Final Four.
“He has the ability to take the big shot and make it,” coach Sean Miller said. “That’s one of the reasons we’re here today.”
McConnell scored 13 of his 17 points in the second half, freshman Stanley Johnson added 12 and second-seeded Arizona made a dominant late rally for a 68-60 victory over sixth-seeded Xavier in the West Regional semifinals on Thursday night.
Kaleb Tarczewski had 12 points and 12 rebounds as the Wildcats (34-3) weathered a major scare from the Musketeers (23-14) and clamped down defensively during a game-ending 19-7 run. On both ends of the court, Arizona’s late surge was led by McConnell, the point guard who turned 23 this week.
“Over this season, T.J. has really developed into the rock on our team, the leader,” Tarczewski said. “He’s someone that in clutch situations, everybody on our team is confident with the ball in his hands. He always makes the right play.”
McConnell doesn’t exactly share his teammates’ confidence in him, but in his 138th career college game, he wasn’t scared to shake off his mistakes to take a huge 3-pointer.
“In the first half, you could have said I was practically playing for Xavier, how many times I passed them the ball,” McConnell said. “I couldn’t hit water if I fell out of a boat from (3-point range). But we kept fighting.”
With its third Elite Eight berth in five years, Arizona gets another shot its first Final Four under coach Miller, who led Xavier for five years until 2009.
The Wildcats will face top-seeded Wisconsin (34-3) on Saturday at Staples Center in a rematch of last season’s West final. The Badgers beat Arizona in overtime last spring just down the I-5 freeway in Anaheim, California.
“The next step is a big one,” Miller said. “The fact that we’re playing Wisconsin … it’s almost as if we had a summer to think about it, and we have to somehow make that to our advantage.”
Matt Stainbrook had 17 points and 10 rebounds in his final game for Xavier, which fell just short of its first trip to the Elite Eight since 2008. Those Musketeers were coached by Miller and assistant Chris Mack, who replaced his boss and close friend.
“I just told him to win it all,” Mack said of his postgame exchange with Miller. “Just said, ‘You’ve got a great team.’ But he already knew that.”
With its 14th straight victory, Arizona has another chance to reach its first the Final Four since 2001, but only after answering when Xavier moved ahead early in the second half. The Musketeers led 53-49 with seven minutes remaining before the Wildcats finally went to work.
Arizona’s sizable crowd awoke as the Wildcats made an 11-2 run highlighted by McConnell’s 3-pointer with 4:18 to play, putting them up 58-54. Even more importantly, Arizona held the Musketeers without a field goal for an 8:35 stretch in the final minutes after getting shredded on the interior earlier in the game.
Johnson, the Orange County product likely headed to the NBA after one season at Arizona, managed just two points after halftime. The Wildcats’ upperclassmen took charge late, with McConnell and Tarczewski scoring the biggest points and leading the defensive effort.
After halftime, Arizona largely shut down Stainbrook, the Musketeers’ glasses-wearing, Uber-driving MBA student and leading scorer. He made just one field goal after halftime, part of their 9-for-23 performance from the field.
Dee Davis and Jalen Reynolds had 12 points apiece for Xavier.
“We just missed some shots, and it hurts when you do that because a lot of it comes down to senior leadership,” Stainbrook said. “I think me and Dee tried to be closers and tried to lead our team, and sometimes it just doesn’t go the way you want it.”
The game was a bittersweet reunion for Miller, who reluctantly left Xavier for a bigger job at Arizona. At Miller’s urging, the Musketeers gave the job to Mack, who has led Xavier to three Sweet 16 berths during six winning seasons while navigating the school’s move to the Big East.
Xavier: The Musketeers are just one of nine teams with five Sweet 16 appearances in the last eight years. … The schools had never met before.
Arizona: Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, a sophomore starter on the wing and Arizona’s third-leading scorer, fell to the court in obvious pain just over 6 minutes into the first half. Although the hushed crowd feared the worst, he eventually walked to the locker room with no assistance and returned to the game. … The Pac-12’s regular-season and tournament champions have lost just three games by a combined nine points this season.
Xavier: Plan for a promising next season without top scorer Stainbrook.
Arizona: Remember how they stopped Stainbrook in the second half and apply it to Wisconsin 7-footer Frank Kaminsky.
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