Arizona finishes strong to beat Xavier, set up rematch with Wisconsin

Arizona finishes strong to beat Xavier, set up rematch with Wisconsin
Arizona center Kaleb Tarczewski grabs a defensive rebound as he gets tangled with Xavier center Matt Stainbrook in the first half of an NCAA West Regional semifinal at Staples Center on Thursday night. (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

Wisconsin Coach Bo Ryan, on Wednesday, ran into Arizona Coach Sean Miller in the catacombs of Staples Center.

"Wait a minute," Ryan said, "weren't we just doing this a year ago?"


Yes, it was just a different arena off a different freeway offramp.

Arizona and Wisconsin, a year after their epic West Regional battle at Honda Center in Anaheim, will meet again Saturday in another Final Four bake-off.

Wisconsin won last year's game, by a point, in overtime.

Will the rematch match last year's drama?

No. 2 Arizona needed to fight off a pesky, gritty No. 6 Xavier team in the late game Thursday to set up Saturday's No. 1 vs. No. 2 meeting at Staples Center.

Arizona overcame a four-point second-half deficit to defeat Xavier, 68-60.

"We could have folded," Miller said afterward. "But we hung in there."

The game turned with 4:14 left when T.J. McConnell's three-point shot increased the Wildcats' lead to four. McConnell actually thought the shot was short and followed it almost all the way to the basket only to see it sail cleanly through the net.

The final few minutes became a free-throw contest.

After Xavier's Matt Stainbrook made one of two to cut the lead to three, Arizona's Brandon Ashley extended it to five with two free shots with 3:36 left.

Arizona got the ball back after a Stainbrook miss and that led to Arizona's Kaleb Tarczewski getting fouled after rebounding teammate Stanley Johnson's missed shot from the corner.

Tarczewski made both foul shots, with 1:58 left, to increase Arizona's lead to seven.

It was only then that Wildcats fans could feel comfortable and players could look forward to Saturday's rematch against Wisconsin.

"It didn't matter if it was North Carolina or Wisconsin," McConnell said. "We're not going to make this game any bigger than it needs to be."

Xavier pushed Arizona most of the game and played like a nitty-gritty team from the Big East.

The Musketeers finished tied for sixth in conference, but then became the only Big East team to reach the round of 16.

Xavier (23-14) lost three times this season to the Villanova Wildcats but seemed determined Thursday to take down the Arizona Wildcats.

Xavier was led by Stainbrook, a 6-foot-10 senior, who had a team-high 17 points and 10 rebounds.

McConnell, who turned 23 on Wednesday, started off slowly but carried Arizona down the stretch.

"You could have said I was playing for Xavier," McConnell said of a first half in which he made only two of seven shots and missed all three of his three-point shots.

He recovered to lead the Wildcats with 17 points and also had seven rebounds.

"T.J. has really developed this year into our rock and our leader," Tarczewski said.

Tarczewski and Johnson added 12 points each, while Tarczewski also had 12 rebounds.

Arizona, which improved to 34-3, will try on Saturday to break the hex of playing NCAA tournament games in Southern California.

Since 1975, the Wildcats have been eliminated seven times in games played in the Southland, winning only the 1994 West regional.

More recently, Arizona lost regional finals in Anaheim in 1998 (Utah), 2003 (Kansas), 2011 (Connecticut) and last year's heartbreaker to Wisconsin.

The Wildcats also suffered a West Regional semifinal loss to Ohio State, two seasons ago, at Staples Center.

Arizona also, in Los Angeles, won only one Pac-12 tournament in 11 attempts.

The Wildcats survived against Xavier despite making only 22 of 54 shots in the game. Xavier outscored Arizona, 34-18, in the paint, but made only three of 17 three-point attempts.

The game was a battle between coaching friends. Xavier Coach Chris Mack served under Miller at Xavier before Miller left six years ago for Arizona.

After the game, Mack said he told Miller: "Go win it all."

Twitter: @DufresneLATimes