LAHAINA, Maui — In a battle of two scrappy Wildcat squads, the team boasting three Wooden Award Preseason Top 50 prospects and a veteran big man in the middle emerged victorious.
No. 3 Arizona overcame a sluggish start and held on for a 72-68 victory over Kansas State to claim a berth in the semifinals of the EA Sports Maui Invitational Tuesday afternoon at the Lahaina Civic Center.
Arizona (5-0) leaned on its 7-foot junior center Kaleb Tarczewski, who racked up a career-high 18 points and pulled down three key offensive rebounds. Fellow junior and Wooden Award prospect Brandon Ashley chipped in 10 points and five boards against an undersized K-State defensive unit.
Trailing by a point at halftime, Kansas State (3-2) started the second half on a 4-0 run bolstered by two consecutive offensive fouls called against Arizona.
Arizona roared back with a 5-0 run sparked by a 3-pointer by guard Gabe York (15 points) that put the ‘Cats in front 36-34 three minutes into the period. That was the eighth lead change of the game.
Arizona sophomore forward Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, another member of the Wooden watch list, asserted himself with two rim-rocking dunks that extended the team’s scoring run to 9-2 and put his squad ahead 40-36 with 15 minutes remaining in the contest. The reserve led the way with eight rebounds and three blocked shots.
After K-State went back in front 43-42 on a 7-2 streak capped by Thomas Gipson’s hook shot, Arizona countered with a 10-0 run buoyed by back-to-back 3-pointers from guards T.J. McConnell and York as the game clock ticked under 10 minutes. The resulting nine-point lead would prove insurmountable as Kansas State would move no closer than within two points the rest of the way.
“We left with a hard-fought victory,” said Arizona coach Sean Miller. “We knew we were in a high-level game. We had a number of players go through things individually…that’s why you come to Maui, to challenge yourself on a neutral court like we just did.”
Marcus Foster kept Kansas State in the game as the sophomore guard poured in 12 of his game-high 23 points in the final seven minutes. A traveling violation and resulting turnover by Foster with 1:08 to play negated what could have been a game-tying drive toward the rim.
“Respect isn’t a good enough word (for) how we categorize him as a player,” Miller said when asked about Foster’s stellar play. “There aren’t too many guards who are better basketball players who mean more to their team. The thing I really admire is he does it through the flow of his team.”
Stanley Johnson, Arizona’s third Wooden Award contender who was limited by early foul trouble, had 14 points in addition to seven rebounds. He also had a steal with 22 seconds remaining to help cement the victory.
“College is very different than high school; way different, way more stakes on the line,” said Johnson. “I think Kansas State’s a really good team. For me as a freshman, this was really my first game where it was really intense … you could feel it from the start in the game.”
There was no shortage of scoring early on as Kansas State built a 13-6 lead on the heels of forward Nino Williams’ three-point play followed by a 3-pointer from Foster nearly five minutes into the contest.
Kansas State employed a loose press on defense to slow Arizona’s potent scorers, and K-State forced three early turnovers on the way to extending their advantage to 17-10 with 12 minutes to play in the opening half.
Arizona did not panic, though, and relied on its superior size to build a 13-6 streak — including a 6-0 run — that tied the score at 19. During a scoring drought that lasted nearly eight minutes, Kansas State missed nine consecutive field-goal attempts.
Kansas State ended the half with a last-second tip in from forward Stephen Hurt, cutting Arizona’s lead to 31-30 at intermission. Kansas State managed to stay within striking distance by converting eight free throws and four treys that accounted for two-thirds of its scoring in the opening half.
“They’re very good … sound system, they guard you,” said Kansas State coach Bruce Weber after watching Arizona win the rebounding battle 30-23. “Rebounding
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