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Tarczewski, Wildcats survive NCAA tournament 'Instant Classic'
Arizona Wildcats center Kaleb Tarczewski (35) of Claremont, N.H., celebrates on the bench against the San Diego State Aztecs during the second half of Friday's 2014 NCAA Men's Basketball tournament game. (Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports)
They pressed. They kept pushing. They fought like a fish on a hook.
Arizona all but fell in line, a victim the way it had been a victim on the same court 16 years ago against Utah. Same story. No. 1 seed runs into world-beater.
“This is why you spend those hot summer days in the gym in August,” said UA assistant coach Damon Stoudamire. “A game like this exhausts you if you let it. Our guys didn’t let it.”
“What happened,” said Stoudamire, “was that it was an Instant Classic. Big steal. Big shots. Big win.”
With 10:13 remaining, Johnson drove into the paint and rolled a shot off the rim that dipped into the basket, then came out, rolled around for a bit and fell into the hands of the Aztecs. That was Johnson’s 10th consecutive miss. San Diego State led 44-41.
Arizona was a master of the late-finish this season, the “next play,” beating Michigan, Stanford, Utah, Oregon, Duke and, yes, San Diego State, with late-game lightning. But never was it so uncomfortable as it was Thursday, with such dire consequences.
The Play of the Game (and maybe the year) was T.J. McConnell’s steal from Xavier Thames with 2:44 remaining. McConnell hit the floor, chasing the loose ball as if he were chasing the winning Powerball ticket.
The game was not over, not with a 56-51 lead, but in a way, it was.
“It was pure hustle,” said UA freshman Rondae Hollis-Jefferson. “T.J. wanted that ball, and he got on the floor and got it. That had a huge impact on the game and changed the atmosphere of the building. Everything just felt different after that steal.”
Had Nick Johnson missed any of the next 11 shots he attempted — 10 foul shots and a dagger-inducing three-ball with 1:50 remaining — the game might have changed. Who makes 11 straight shots in the last two minutes of a Sweet 16 game? Or any game?
It is protocol at the NCAA tournament for the losing team to be first to the media interview center, dragging its tired bones up a set of stairs and then mostly staring at the ground while the inquisitors wait impatiently for the winning team to arrive.
Before Miller left the Honda Center, his voice hoarse and his shirt soaked in sweat, he put the game in its best perspective.
He spoke about toughness, resolve, willpower and all the things a winning coach gets to say when his team gets out of a jam and lives to play another day.
Miller was the last man standing in the interview room. In the NCAA tournament, that’s the Land of Opportunity.