SALT LAKE CITY — No. 2 seed Arizona didn’t lead until 20 seconds into the second half, but it was the ability to stick around in the first half that impressed head coach Sean Miller.
“We hung in there. It was a really — like a microcosm of our entire season,” he said.
The Wildcats took the lead in the second half and pushed past a late effort by Saint Mary’s to advance to the Sweet 16 with a 69-60 win Saturday night at Vivint Arena.
The win pits Arizona against No. 11 Xavier in the next round, which will be held in San Jose, California. The game will actually be a rematch of a 2015 tournament game between the two schools, where Arizona went on to advance to the Elite Eight.
Arizona trailed throughout the first half by as much as 10 points. Instead of moping around about the slow start, guard Kadeem Allen said the team went into the locker room wanting to work harder.
The Wildcats shot 35 percent from the floor in the first half and 59 percent in the second.
“Going into halftime we know we weren't playing our best basketball in the first half,” Allen said. “Coming in the second half we kept confidence and kept playing the game, and just kept battling it out.”
Arizona wound up outscoring Saint Mary’s 15-6 in points off turnovers and held the Gaels to just 24 percent from beyond the arc. Lauri Markkanen led the team with 16 points and 11 rebounds.
Arizona also got a boost from Rawle Alkins after a scare in the first half. Alkins left the game midway through the first half after dislocating a finger going for a rebound but returned later in the game.
“My right hand was like my left hand. I just came off the court — I was just scared,” he said, of the injury. “I thought it was a serious injury but they ended up popping it back in and I just hung in there. … I told the trainer, ‘you guys do whatever it takes so I can get back on the court.’ They did an X-ray and luckily it was only a minor fracture. But I told them I’ll still play and I just ran back onto the court and told coach ‘I’m good.’”
Alkins finished with 6 points and two steals in 27 minutes, finishing +13 while on the court.
“If he didn't return to the game I don't know if we would have had enough to win,” Miller said.
The focus will now be on Xavier with the Sweet 16 matchup. The winner there will play the winner between No. 1 Gonzaga and No. 4 West Virginia.
“I know they’re a very good team. If they weren’t a good team, they wouldn’t be going to the Sweet 16,” Allen said. “We just have to get prepared in the next five or six days and hopefully we’ll be ready for the task and be ready to get it done.”