MIAMI (AP)—Nic Wise held an ice pack to his lip. Chase Budinger had one on his left shin. Jordan Hill’s was strapped atop his left ankle.
Arizona’s three stars may have been bruised—but not beaten.
And so much for that notion the Wildcats didn’t belong in the NCAA tournament.
Wise scored 21 of his 29 points in the second half, Budinger added 20 and the 12th-seeded Wildcats—one of the last teams into the field of 65—knocked off fifth-seeded Utah 84-71 Friday night in the first round of the Midwest Regional.
“We deserved to be here,” Arizona interim coach Russ Pennell said. “Would we have been surprised if we had not been selected? No, that’s a different question. But as far as us belonging here, we definitely belong here, and today was not about proving that. That was not our motivation. Our motivation was to win the game and move on.”
Hill added 17 points and 13 rebounds and Kyle Fogg scored 12 for Arizona (20-13), which has been in the NCAAs 25 years in a row, but hadn’t reached the second round since 2006. Arizona sweated out Selection Sunday, its tourney streak in serious jeopardy after finishing with losses in five of its final six games.
No worries now: Another long shot—13th-seeded Cleveland State—awaits the Wildcats on Sunday.
“We’ve had hardships throughout the whole season, but we stuck together as a team,” Budinger said. “We united and came closer with those hardships. That’s what made us at this point that we’re at now.”
Tyler Kepkay scored 19 points for Utah (24-10), which was 8-for-32 from 3-point range and matched a season-high with 20 turnovers.
The Utes—who were picked to finish fourth in the Mountain West, then captured a share of the league title and won the conference tournament—trailed 23-10 early, got within two with about 5 minutes remaining, but never dug all the way out of that early deficit.
“We didn’t win, and that’s the tough thing about this business. Somebody wins, somebody loses,” Utah coach Jim Boylen said. “But we’re going to keep building this program. We’re going to keep getting tougher. We’re lifting Monday morning at 6 o’clock. The beat goes on.”
Luke Nevill, the Utes’ 7-foot-2 Australian center, had two fouls by the time the game was 3 1/2 minutes old. He finished with 12 points and five rebounds, never really being the dominant factor he often was during the Mountain West season.
Lawrence Borha finished with 11 points for Utah, which got 10 points and 10 rebounds from Shaun Green.
“We were getting the shots that we wanted,” Nevill said. “We were shooting the ball great the day before. It just wasn’t our night. The balls were good shots, they were bouncing in and out. If you take them again, they might go in.”
The Wildcats’ lead was a comfortable 63-53 with 8:15 remaining, when Wise hit a 3-pointer from the left wing.
That’s when the Utes came rushing back with what became a 9-1 run over the next 3 minutes.
Kepkay capped the spurt with a 3-pointer from the right corner that made it 64-62, causing Pennell to pace his share of the sideline even more quickly.
Alas, he needed not to worry, as his Wildcats would answer with a 10-1 burst.
“I think the adrenaline, the travel, everything else I thought caught up with us at times,” Pennell said. “We kind of got through that and re-established ourselves.”
The Utes went the next 3:47 without a field goal. With Utah’s big man burdened by four fouls, Hill went over Nevill for a score with 3:12 left, Budinger drove past Nevill for another layup a half-minute later, and the Wildcats held on.
Utah came into the game averaging 13.6 turnovers; the Utes had 14 by halftime. In the game’s first 15 minutes, Arizona had 12 points off Utah’s turnovers—and that was exactly the margin, 29-17, when Hill scored inside off Utah’s 13th giveaway of the half.
Eventually, the Utes settled down, getting within 34-29 at the half on Green’s 3-pointer from the left wing with just under 5 seconds remaining. But the Wildcats shot 16-for-26—a sizzling 62 percent—after halftime to keep the Utes at bay.
“It feels great to prove the people wrong who said we didn’t belong,” Arizona’s Zane Johnson said. “We knew that if we got into the tournament, we would make some noise.”
Arizona had never been lower than a No. 10 seed in the NCAA tournament, has seen a revolving door of coaches—from Lute Olson to Kevin O’Neill and now Pennell—in the past three years, had awful showings in the 2007 and 2008 tournaments and dealt with that end-of-season slide this year.
It only made Friday seem the more sweeter.
“We overcame adversity again,” Wise said, “and proved that we really should be in the tournament.”