SAN DIEGO — The last time Arizona and Gonzaga met in the NCAA Tournament, it was epic.
On Sunday, it was easy — for the Wildcats.
Top-seeded Arizona punched its ticket to Anaheim, Calif., and the Sweet 16 by defeating the Bulldogs 84-61 in a third-round West Region game Sunday.
On Thursday, the Wildcats will play San Diego State, a team they defeated by six points earlier this season, the Aztecs’ lone home loss.
Arizona (32-4) coasted Sunday after leading the eighth-seeded Bulldogs (29-7) by as many as 21 points in the first half.
“For us to win the way we did, we probably didn’t catch them on their best night,” Arizona coach Sean Miller said. “But we played very, very well.”
Freshman forward Aaron Gordon was sensational, leading the Wildcats with 18 points. He added six rebounds, six assists and four steals.
“He’s a fantastic player,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said. “The best thing about Aaron is he just plays so hard, he just brings it. He plays with so much energy and is a handful.”
The Bulldogs’ top scorer was center Przemek Karnowski who had 14 points. Guard Kevin Pangos added 12.
The lopsided affair was far from the NCAA Tournament classic produced when the teams played in the 2003 round of 32. In the only other postseason matchup between the Western powerhouses, the Wildcats prevailed 96-95 in double overtime.
On Sunday, Arizona’s defensive pressure forced Gonzaga into 21 turnovers, and that ignited the Wildcats’ transition offense. Arizona scored 31 points off Gonzaga miscues.
“The thing that is special about this team is we are capable of running a half-court offense and pushing the tempo,” Gordon said. “Today we pushed the tempo, and when we noticed they were not getting back as fast as they should have, we kept doing it.”
Arizona, which heads to its 16th Sweet 16 and third in five years under Miller, wasn’t challenged Sunday. Gordon showed why he could be headed for the NBA, and guard Nick Johnson (17 points, five rebounds, five assists, three steals, three blocked shots) displayed why he was selected the Pac-12 Player of the Year.
Gonzaga held a lead in the first half, but it was early and it wasn’t for long. The Wildcats trailed 47-34 at halftime.
A 4-2 Gonzaga advantage a minute into the game was a distant memory as the Wildcats dominated for the other 19 minutes of the half.
Arizona stretched its lead to 11 points with 12 minutes left in the half, and it was only getting warmed up. That cushion quickly grew to 20 on a layup by guard Gabe York, which came on the heels of a thunderous dunk from Gordon.
The bulge got to 21 points before a brief spurt by the Bulldogs toward the end of the half.
The Wildcats are known for their defense and sometimes that causes their offense to get overlooked.
“We know that we can shoot the ball and we can play good offense,” Johnson said. “I think over the past few weeks, we have been playing our best offense as well as defense. We’ve just stayed confident in our guys to hit shots, and we have shown over these past two weeks that we can do both.”
Gordon paced the Wildcats with 12 first-half points, missing only one of six field-goal attempts.
Pangos scored nine first-half points, but he also tweaked his ankle, and it seemed to slow him. Overall, Gonzaga had trouble keeping pace.
“I rolled it pretty good. It was throbbing a lot,” Pangos said. “But yeah, the pace of the game was a little faster, and we always didn’t do a good job. We gave them confidence turning it over, and they got out and ran. It was like a highlight reel for them, but they are a good team.”
Arizona proved it Sunday.
“Tonight was one of our best performances,” Miller said.
“That is the best team we have played that I can remember,” Few said.
NOTES: Arizona’s 32 victories are the second most in a season in school history. … The Wildcats have three 200-pounders in their lineup: F Aaron Gordon (225), C Kaleb Tarczewski
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