Pac-12 Tournament: Arizona dominates Cal in front of raucous crowd to reach semis
LAS VEGAS – The MGM Grand Arena might as well have been the McKale Center on Thursday.
As the top-seeded Arizona men's basketball team faced Cal in the first quarterfinal of the 2015 Pac-12 Tournament, the stands were jam-packed with fans in red shirts rooting on their Wildcats. Arizona made sure that those folks will be back for Friday's semifinal matchup, as the No. 5 team in the country dispatched the Bears with a dominating 73-51 victory.
You could feel the presence of the Wildcats faithful early. In the game's opening minute, Arizona point guard T.J. McConnell recorded a steal and then drove to the other end for a layup before being showered with "M-V-P!" cheers. As he stood on the floor during the National Anthem, McConnell looked around the arena and had a feeling it would be a pro-Arizona crowd.
"It was pretty much like McKale," McConnell said. "Our fans are the best. They travel to wherever we go and we appreciate them."
Despite the road game environment, Cal didn't wane under the early pressure, matching Arizona bucket for bucket to start the contest. Tyrone Wallace was particularly aggressive in the first half for Cal, registering nine points by intermission.
But Arizona kept grinding it out, getting separation en route to a 33-27 halftime lead. Cal guard Jabari Bird hit a three-pointer coming out of the locker room to pull his team within three, but then the Wildcats got the arena rocking again with a key sequence that changed the complexion of the game.
It started when Stanley Johnson hit a wing three-pointer, which got the crowd off their feet. Just moments later, McConnell nabbed another steal and passed it to Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, who threw down one of his signature monster dunks to give Arizona a 42-32 lead at the 17:16 mark.
"That's what [Hollis-Jefferson] gives us," Arizona coach Sean Miller said. "We all feed off of his energy. I think Stanley and T.J. would echo my sentiments about Rondae."
From that point on, Cal couldn't get much going on the offensive end, never cutting the deficit to single digits. The Bears essentially had no low-post presence, as senior David Kravish wasn't able to establish himself on the block. So the Bears mostly settled for long jumpers and couldn't get any rhythm going,as Arizona slowly extended its lead throughout the rest of the second half.
Miller made sure to heap praise on his center Kaleb Tarczewski and forward Brandon Ashley for containing Kravish a day after the torched Washington State.
"It was execution. We emphasized that," Miller said of his team's dominant low-post defense. "We respect Kravish a lot. Especially after last night's game – 25 points. We wanted to make his post catches hard. Thought a couple times when we trapped him, it really worked to our advantage."
In the final game of his career, Kravish finished with six points and 12 rebounds, while Wallace led the Bears with 19 points. In all, Cal shot just 34.4 percent from the field, the 51 points representing the team's lowest total since Arizona topped them, 73-50, on Jan. 24.
The Bears might have been defeated, but they weren't hanging their heads after the game. With an 18-15 record in a conference like the Pac-12, Cal should receive an invite to the National Invitational Tournament or College Basketball Invitational.
"We went out there, competed, played hard," Bird said. "We didn't give up like we did the last game. We weren't just going to let them come out in this game and step all over us. We played with a lot of energy on both ends of the court. We kept it close for a little bit, but they made a run and we just didn't answer back."
McConnell delivered another exclamation point with 4:38 left in the game when he knocked down a three-pointer to make it 62-47, Arizona. Johnson led his team with 19 points and seven rebounds, while McConnell added 13 points and six assists, Brandon Ashley scored 15 points and grabbed seven rebounds. It was just the type of balanced performance Arizona fans have been accustomed to seeing all year.
After seeing his team get rolled by the Pac-12 regular season champs, Cal coach Cuonzo Martin said Arizona looks like a legit national championship contender.
"I think they have just as good a chance as anybody," Martin said. "They have the parts, they have the interior player. I think when you got low-post bigs that are big, physical ... plus these guys have been around the block. They've been together."
Up next, the 'Cats play the winner of Thursday's USC-UCLA matchup. Friday's semifinal will be broadcast on Pac-12 Networks at 6 p.m. PT.