“Their style is such a nightmare,” Miller said of a great backcourt that has the ability to hit the 3 and make a lot of steals.
Instead, the Wildcats proved a major headache for the Bruins and coach Rick Byrd.
Mark Lyons scored 23 points and Arizona used its size to dominate in an 81-64 second-round NCAA tournament victory Thursday night.
“I was more impressed with team I saw tonight than I was scouting them,” Byrd acknowledged afterward. “I thought they were more engaged and focused and I think if they play that way, they can beat a lot of people.”
The Wildcats (26-7) held a 44-18 edge on the boards, outscored Belmont 36-18 in the paint, blocked five shots and outshot the Bruins from 3-point range. Arizona made 9 of 17 3-pointers, including a critical one from Solomon Hill with 4:40 remaining to stop an 11-2 Belmont run, and shot 57 percent overall.
Hill ended up making as many 3s as Ian Clark, who entered the game shooting better than 46 percent for Belmont but was 3 of 8 from beyond the arc.
Credit goes to Nick Johnson and Jordin Mayes, who made Clark earn every one of his 21 points on 8-of-14 shooting. Kerron Johnson led Belmont with 22 points.
“I don’t think it was nerves,” said Clark, who started 1 of 4 from 3-point range while the Bruins were 2 of 13 from beyond the arc in the first half and 8 of 27 overall. “We’ve always talked about being ready, being focused mentally. Shots weren’t falling early. When that happens early and they’re making shots, it’s human nature to get down, team-wise. We tried to pick it back up, but to their credit, they were making shots and their guys were making plays.”
While Clark’s numbers were off-the-charts before the game, Arizona’s rebounding edge was head-turning.
Miller isn’t sure he’s seen Arizona dominate so thoroughly in that category, with Kaleb Tarczewski and Kevin Parrom grabbing eight boards apiece, Brandon Ashley hauling in seven and Grant Jarrett six.
“The one thing about our team that’s deceptive is we’re bigger and more physical than we get credit for,” Miller said. “Kaleb Tarczewski has developed. He’s not the same player in March as he once was. And we’re physical on the wings with Solomon Hill and Kevin Parrom. Those guys not only are 6-6 but they are physical strong (seniors).”
Add in 6-foot-10 freshman Jarrett and 6-8 freshman Ashley, and the Wildcats are a load.
“The key for us is to utilize that length where we have an advantage rebounding and defensively on offense where we can get in and around the rim tonight and get fouls and score,” Miller said.
Byrd, meanwhile, took some of the blame for not being able to adjust.
He said he expected Tarczewski (5 of 5 for 12 points) to struggle going back to cover a 3-point shooter such as Trevor Noack after helping on a ball screen. But Miller chose not to make Tarczewski do that.
“Instead he guarded Blake (Jenkins) and then we really couldn’t get the offense that I thought we could,” Byrd said. “It took me too darn long to find something that would work.”
Nothing seemingly worked on senior guard Lyons, who drove the lane, hit 3s, and put an exclamation point on his night with a put-back dunk that gave Arizona an 80-64 lead with 1:22 left.
“I think Belmont’s strategy was to pressure our perimeter, probably to prevent us from throwing it inside and they really got extended,” Miller said. “We tried to put Mark in position to use the ball screen with the court wide open and he took advantage of it.”
Arizona led by as many as 21 points, 64-43, with 7:45 remaining before Belmont went on a 10-0 run, capped by back-to-back 3-pointers by Clark and J.J. Mann. The 3s came just seven seconds apart as Mann stole the inbounds pass.
But Parrom (12 points) countered with a driving layup and Hill hit another 3-pointer —Arizona’s eighth — to bump the Wildcats’ lead back to 15 points, 69-54, with 4:29 left.
The breakthrough so many thought would happen for Belmont didn’t, and the Bruins (26-7) fell to 0-6 in tourney games.
Arizona moves on to face the winner of the New Mexico-Harvard game.
Miller wouldn’t call it a sense of relief.
“We have high expectations and when you’re ranked from start to finish like we’ve been and sometimes you lose games, people on the outside can get down on you,” Miller said. “Some of the best teams in Arizona’s history got hot right now. … But going from the second round to the Sweet 16 is a whole new level. It’s much more difficult.”