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Arizona and Saint Mary's went back and forth as the second half unfolded Saturday night, suggesting their second-round game in the NCAA Tournament would go down to the end.
Allonzo Trier wouldn't play along with that script. Talent took over, as is supposed to happen at this stage of the season. Scoring all of his 14 points in the second half, Trier triggered Arizona's 69-60 victory at Vivint Smart Home Arena.
Looking ahead, the West Region bracket has widened nicely for the No. 2 seed Wildcats, with No. 3 Florida State losing to No. 11 Xavier.
Looking back, I have one question: How did Arizona survive the first 19 games of the season, including a win over Utah, without Trier? Due to Trier's testing positive for a performance-enhancing substance, the Wildcats had to play through his absence, proving they're a very good team. They're even better with him, and may not have beaten Saint Mary's without him.
"We hung in there," said Arizona coach Sean Miller, who labeled the game "a microcosm of our entire season."
If that's true, the snapshot captured the 17-game segment the Wildcats (32-4) have played with Trier available. The lead changed hands nine times in the first 10 minutes of the second half, then Trier made it clear that the Wildcats were through kidding around. The sophomore guard's 3-pointer sent Arizona ahead 47-46, and he kept coming. His jump shot, two free throws and another jumper helped him account for nine of Arizona's 11 points in a decisive stretch.
And when Saint Mary's kept threatening, getting within 58-55 in the last four minutes, 7-foot forward Lauri Markkanen delivered a 3-pointer, followed by his two free throws that finally subdued the Gaels (29-5). The Finnish freshman posted 16 points and 11 rebounds.
Besides advancing the Wildcats' own cause, Arizona's victory keeps some degree of consolation in play for Utah. If Oregon and UCLA win Sunday, the Utes will be able to say they finished fourth in the Pac-12 behind three Sweet 16 teams.
If Saint Mary's had won, BYU would have rationalized placing third in the West Coast Conference behind Gonzaga and SMC. The Gaels (29-5) ransacked the WCC, except for those three games against Gonzaga, but they simply ran into another elite opponent Saturday.
Have you noticed? College basketball in the West made a comeback this season, even without much contribution from the Utah schools. The timing could be really good, with the Final Four being staged in this region (suburban Phoenix) for the first time in 22 years.
The Wildcats might be headed to Miller's first Final Four. In a program like Arizona's, he's willing to be evaluated by that standard.
"All of us are judged by what happens in March," Miller said this week. "And I think for us to duck that or look at that as not being the case is somewhat unrealistic."
If Gonzaga secretly hoped to have Arizona knocked out of its bracket, the Bulldogs' WCC rivals almost came through for them. Saint Mary's battled all night with its patient, grinding style and made the Wildcats work like crazy for this win.
Arizona hardly resembled title contenders for a big chunk of the first half, tailing 22-12 with barely five minutes remaining. Arizona steadied itself with free throws and defense, cutting the lead to 30-29 by halftime even with Trier going 0 for 4 and the team shooting 34.5 percent from the field.
The Wildcats looked like the Pac-12 co-champions in the second half, while making their first appearance in Salt Lake City this season in the conference's scheduling rotation. The Vivint games were well-supported. With a big boost from Northwestern, Saturday's attendance of 18,565 was about 2,500 bigger than the second-round crowd in 2013, when Gonzaga and Arizona also played here.
And even if those teams were not overwhelming from start to finish this weekend, fans should have gained some appreciation for their ability to grind out wins and advance. Arizona and Gonzaga are tracking toward an Elite Eight meeting in San Jose, Calif., which would send one of them to the Final Four representing a conference that includes a Utah school and completing a trek that went through Salt Lake City.