SAN DIEGO — Arms waving and legs churning, Arizona is racing back into the Sweet 16.
The rest of the bracket should take notice of this one. If they play like this, the Wildcats are going to be awfully tough to beat.
Overwhelming Gonzaga with its contest-everything defense, Arizona looked very much like the top seed in the West, blowing out the Bulldogs 84-61 on Sunday to reach the Sweet 16 for the third time in four years.
“That Arizona team we saw tonight was as good a team as we have faced, that I can remember,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said. “It was just too much for us tonight.”
Coming off a shaky NCAA tournament opener, Arizona (32-4) ended a wild first weekend of upsets and buzzer beaters with a display of domination.
This was not the epic double-overtime game these teams played in the 2003 NCAA tournament. This was an eye-popping display of what one of the nation’s best teams can do when it gets rolling.
The Wildcats overran Gonzaga (29-7) with their size, athleticism and quick hands to blow the eighth-seeded Bulldogs out of the bracket.
Turning one of college basketball’s most efficient teams on its head, Arizona scored 31 points of Gonzaga’s 21 turnovers — 15 on steals — and never gave the Zags a chance after racing out to a 21-point lead in the first half.
Aaron Gordon had 18 points, six rebounds and six assists for Arizona. Fellow freshman Rondae Hollis-Jefferson also had 18 points and Nick Johnson finished with 17.
Next up for Arizona is fourth-seeded San Diego State — a team it beat in this same arena early in the season — in the Sweet 16 just up the coast in Anaheim.
“Tonight was one of our season’s best performances,” Arizona coach Sean Miller said. “Obviously, you want to play well in the NCAA tournament and that’s exactly what our team did tonight.”
Gonzaga has relied on its ability to control the game and take care of the ball during a run of 16 straight NCAA tournament appearances.
Arizona’s pressure ran the Zags ragged, leaving them trailing the Wildcats as they raced off to one layup after another.
Przemek Karnowski scored 14 points and Kevin Pangos added 12 for Gonzaga, which hasn’t reached the Sweet 16 since 2009.
“We didn’t do ourselves any favors,” said Pangos, who kept playing after turning his ankle early in the game. “We let them feel pretty good about themselves. But they are a good team and they did speed it up a little bit.”
Arizona was jittery in its opener against Weber State, starting slow and allowing the Wildcats from Utah to claw their way back from a 21-point deficit in the second half to make it close.
The first-game anxiety out of their system, the Wildcats played with confidence and plenty of energy against Gonzaga, sprinting up the floor after steals and defensive rebounds to set up easy shots in transition.
Arizona made it look easy at times, dropping off passes for layups, flying in for alley-oops and spotting up for 3-pointers on the break.
It was so good even Gordon, whose outside shot has been questioned, dropped in a 3-pointer. For good measure, he went in for what seems to become his signature move on the break, soaring up for a reverse dunk on an alley-oop from Johnson to put Arizona up 38-20.
Gonzaga shot well against one of the nation’s best defenses — when it could get shots off.
The Bulldogs struggled with Arizona’s they’re-everywhere defense, playing catch-up on the break as the Wildcats snared passes and stripped dribblers for eight steals in the first half. Gonzaga had 11 turnovers that Arizona turned into 19 points for a 47-34 halftime lead that would have been more if the Bulldogs didn’t make a late run.
Arizona had one turnover and 13 assists on its 17 field goals — 34 attempts — with Gordon and Hollis-Jefferson combining to hit 8 of 9 shots while scoring 12 points each.
“What we did today was push the tempo,” Gordon said. “We noticed they weren’t getting back as well as they should and we just kept that going throughout the game.”
The second half started like this: two possessions by Gonzaga, two turnovers.
Arizona kept the show going from there.
Johnson had the defensive highlight of the half, tracking down David Stockton to block what appeared to be a breakaway layup and the ball went off a Gonzaga player, to boot. The offensive reel was highlighted by Gordon, who soared in for a rebound slam over two Gonzaga players.
No chance for the Bulldogs and, if Arizona keeps playing like this, not much of one for anyone else.